The trauma of long-term unemployment: Losing your job is just the start

There are now millions of people who are in the long-term, figure-out-how-to-pay-your-bills-yourself jobless category. And while the government may choose not to count them because they no longer are eligible to collect unemployment checks, researchers are at least acknowledging they exist -- and have turned to history to see what happens to them emotionally.

What they found isn't pretty.

Researchers found that the long-term unemployed will suffer deep mental and emotional scars from the experience.

A Gallup study in the Economic Journal found that those who were out of work for at least a year took longer to recover emotionally than those who had lost a spouse. The results showed quantifiable declines in their health, their self-esteem and their overall emotional well-being.

When the steel industry collapsed in Pennsylvania, the 80,000-strong steel industry workforce shrank to just 4,000 jobs by 1987. Studies of that group found that the life expectancies of those who lost their jobs after age 40 decreased by up to a year and a half. And laid-off Pennsylvanians saw a 15% to 20% reduction in lifetime earnings.

Hardest hit: the middle class. Workers with lower level skills found other lower-skilled jobs. Want to feel worse? The impact of long-term unemployment extends well beyond the direct worker. A more recent study found that a child whose parent loses his or her job is 15% more likely to repeat a grade in school, according to the University of California Davis research team of economists Ann Huff Stevens and Jessamyn Schaller.

Is the same thing happening now? Certainly stories indicate that depression is pervasive among the long-term unemployed. A now-three year old post on Jibber-Jobber that discussed being depressed and contemplating suicide after losing a job drew hundreds of responses in agreement. Multiply that by three years and several million folks who have lost their jobs since.

Depression among the long-term unemployed has led to the creation of online support groups like the 99ers group, named after those who have graduated past the maximum 99 weeks of unemployment benefits. Facebook is filled with job support groups and many of them reflect how the unemployed feel and see themselves -- the people that America forgot or "Third World Americans."

Overqualified and Undervalued

Kimberly Kimberly "Kitti" Brady's depression over losing her job gave birth to a project called "Nobody Knows You: The Unemployment Experience Project." Brady was laid off in December 2008 from her high-paying job in New York City where she did budget analysis research for a major financial corporation. Now all she hears is that she's overqualified for office management jobs that would pay her a fraction of her previous salary. "I'd take one in a heartbeat," she says, but they aren't being offered to her. She's contemplating giving up her home to move in with her brother in Wisconsin.

"Am I depressed? Constantly. Every day seems harder and a little more hopeless," she says. She provided her photo for this post with hesitation because she fears that a prospective employer might be dissuaded from hiring her if she admitted being depressed. It's a pervasive fear among the long-term unemployed, and one that frequently stops them from seeking help.

"All I want is to pay my bills from a paycheck I earned, and have a job that makes me feel useful to someone again," Brady said, "I'm tired of being told 'but you're so smart' as though that must mean I'm not trying hard enough to find work. I'm tired of going to bed every night and crying myself to sleep because I'm scared about what my future holds. I'm scared to death of having to throw myself on the mercy of my family after being independent for nearly 20 years. And I'm tired of hearing elected officials use the unemployment benefits that are my only means of survival as a political football while they call me 'lazy'."

She says she spends all day every day looking for work, networking, attending job fairs and events and trying everything she can think of to open the right door, and at night has nothing to show for it. "I'm tired of being emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted because I live every day in constant fear and despair."

Coping by Compartmentalizing


Brian and Sophie LantzyBrian Lantzy, out of work for more than two years now, was living with his wife and toddler in Bend, Ore. when his company went under. He was a regional manager for a residential builder. He had two underwater mortgages for a year -- and not a single job interview. He launched an Internet start-up -- businesses for sale in resort areas -- that hasn't made any money yet. So he's packed up his family and moved to Denver where they are living in an extended stay hotel as he looks for work.

"To say that I have at times been depressed and unmotivated is an understatement," he says. He does a better job of compartmentalizing than his wife does, he says. When thinking about the future starts to weigh him down, he is able to just shut it out and move on to whatever needs to be done today.

'Now My Options Are Long Gone'

Then there's Bud Meyers, who was a bartender in a Las Vegas casino for 19 years before losing his job two years ago. Meyers now writes online about life without a job. His website, acompanyofone.org, is devoted to the plight of the long-term unemployed and he's not shy about advocating for another tier of unemployment benefits.

But mostly what he feels is a level of despair. He says it's like he's standing on railroad tracks as a train keeps approaching closer and closer. "I'm frozen with fear and can't move." He says he doesn't think he can change his future "any more than I can change my past, although I did try."

Bud MeyersHe adds, "Had I known two years ago what I know now, I would have taken what money I still had left in the bank and driven my car to a small town on a beach in southern Mexico and lived there for the next seven years until I was 62 -- when I'd be old enough to collect my union pension and Social Security. But now my options are long gone."

Just for the record, there are some academics and labor economists who question whether any old studies are applicable to the current situation. They say that all the studies of sustained unemployment are rooted in the deep past and that the nature of modern careers is vastly different. Technology has ended some professions and launched others within a very short few years. Even job hunting tools are different.

Columbia University economist Till von Wachter is one who is skeptical of job loss as a cause of long-term depression. "Just because there's a correlation doesn't mean there's causality," he says. While studies of unemployed workers in Germany and the U.K. suggest psychological damage that can be severe and lasting, other studies highlight resiliency. The University of Warwick found that "once you find work again, there's a huge recovery in happiness. There's nothing wrong with these individuals. They just need work."

So if Washington pols are concerned about our welfare, maybe they just need to create some jobs already.

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