Over the next two or three years unemployment is going to climb to three million, and the likelihood is that it will fall only very slowly afterwards. There is a risk it could rise even higher if the Conservative party is as serious about cutting the budget deficit as quickly and as deeply as it says. Worse unemployment disproportionately hits disadvantaged communities most.
This is a calamity. There is a famous study of what happened in the village of Marienthal, not far from Vienna, when the main factory shut its gates in the depression of the early 1930s. The unemployed do not tend to take up the violin, read more books, or enjoy quality time with their families. Indeed, researchers found that although people had enough to eat, use of the library dropped by a third, clubs closed down and wives complained that formerly energetic men took extraordinary amounts of time to accomplish simple tasks. People stood on street corners, waiting. Time weighed heavy but people talked to each other less.
The reason, argued the psychologist Marie Jahoda whose 1980s research is still pathbreaking , is that work provides people with a fundamental “sense of reality”, which can not be obtained through any other activity or institution. Employment of any kind has a number of key benefits. It gives structure to the day; it compels contact and shared experience with others; it demonstrates goals and purpose beyond the individual; it gives status; it forces people to be active. Take those away and people quickly became dysfunctional.
Jahoda returned to her theme in the very different period of high unemployment in the UK during the 1980s. The poverty in question was now relative rather than absolute but she argued that purposelessness loomed as large as ever. The phrases used to describe the feelings were the same: on the scrapheap, useless, not needed by anybody. The loss of work followed by prolonged joblessness entailed a sequence of psychological states – fear and distress, resignation, adaptation, and finally, if unsuccessful in the search for work, blank apathy and withdrawal. The psychological need for work goes deep.
Hard Labour, a paper I recently co-wrote with colleagues from The Work Foundation, sets out today’s evidence on the health affects of unemployment.
- There is a positive association between mortality and unemployment for all age groups, with suicide increasing within a year of job loss.
- Cardiovascular mortality accelerates after 2 or 3 years, continuing for the next 10–15 years.
- There is an estimated 20 per cent excess risk of death for both men actively seeking work and their wives, with the possibility that this may be higher still in areas of higher unemployment.
- Upon re-employment there appears to be a reversal of these effects. While the direction of causality is difficult to determine unemployment is considered to be a significant cause of psychological distress in itself.
- Studies indicated a positive association between unemployed people and a higher prevalence of common mental disorders.
- Those with a more negative outlook on life tend to be more damaged by unemployment while those who are unemployed but have more positive and goal-oriented outlooks fare better.
In the light of the unemployment calamity about to hit the country we have to be as flexible and imaginative as we possibly can about engaging people with work any which we way we can – and we must recognise the fears of those on Incapacity Benefit especially who believe that if they show the slightest ability to work it will be understood as a complete ability to work . I strongly support the Community Allowance. It could improve the well-being of hundreds of thousands of people – and improve the look and feel of our communities.