Arguably, the most severe source of stress associated with employment is the loss of it. Layoffs can occur at all status levels of the occupational hierarchy. Not only semiskilled and skilled workers lose their jobs, but corporation executives and professional persons are also subject to termination. The overall unemployment rate in the United States for 1996 was 5.4%. Among Americans aged 16 years and older, the annual rate of unemployment was over twice as high for black men (11.1%) as for white men (4.7%) and over twice as high for black women (10%) as for white women (4.7%). The rate was higher for widowed, divorced, separated, and single persons than for married persons with spouse present (data provided by U.S. Employment Service, personal communication).
The loss of a job can lead to anxiety, depression, a feeling of emptiness, a decline in physical health, alcoholism, and even suicide (DeFrank & Ivan-cevich, 1986; Kelvin & Jarrett, 1985). The effects of unemployment are felt not only by laid-off workers but also by all members of their families (McLoyd, 1989). Relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and among children themselves may all suffer.
Job loss and unemployment can have serious repercussions for older and less-educated individuals, who may have great difficulty in finding another job (Kinicki, 1989). For many older workers, unemployment is the first step in early retirement (Robinson, Coberly, &Paul, 1985). On the other hand, the loss of a job is less disastrous for younger workers, who can expect to change jobs 5-10 times during their working years (Toffler, 1970). American workers can no longer count on lifetime employment with the same company. Younger workers who are laid off because of downturns in the economy, technological changes, corporate buyouts and mergers, competition, and downsizing are usually able to find new jobs if they are patient and continue searching. For example, most workers with marketable skills found new jobs after the massive downsizing of industries in the early 1990s.
The psychological effects of job loss are typically even greater for middle-aged adults than for younger and older adults. Young adults, who have their whole working lives ahead of them, are generally more optimistic and realistically hopeful of finding other jobs, and older adults can retire. But unemployed, middle-aged adults, particularly those who have reached a fairly high level in the corporate hierarchy, are faced with the prospect of being unable to find a position of comparable status and may not be ready to retire.
In order for business and industry to meet the challenge of international competition, workers must be willing to be retrained by the corporations themselves or by community and technical colleges. Workers who avoid accepting the necessity of such retraining in hopes that their old jobs will reappear are usually indulging in wishful thinking. Skilled workers and managers, and especially unskilled or semiskilled workers, must accept the fact that education and training for work will be a continuing process throughout their working years. Job counseling programs and self-help groups of unemployed workers, for example, groups of former business executives, are also helpful in encouraging unemployed persons to face the challenge of upgrading their skills and finding jobs.
As with the psychological reactions to any loss or threat to a person's competency and security, the effects of job loss and unemployment in general vary with the reasons for the loss and what it means to the individual. If it can be rationalized as not being one's fault and not a rejection of one's value as a breadwinner and a human being, it is likely to be taken in stride and dealt with effectively. This is more apt to occur when there is strong social support from the unemployed worker's family and peers and when he or she has effective skills for coping with frustration and personal setbacks (Mallinckrodt & Fretz, 1988).
Despite the loss of income, unemployment compensation and other sources of financial support help ensure that unemployed workers will not become destitute. Finally, chronically unemployed persons must be able to distance themselves from work and learn to accept the fact that there is more to life than labor (Kinicki & Latack, 1990). This does not mean that the approximately 5% of the nation's labor force who are unemployed at any one time should simply stop looking for a job, as many of them do, but time spent in searching should be balanced by attentiveness to other rewarding aspects of living.
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