The always-fascinating FiveThirtyEight Economics blog published a report on the ways unemployed people spend their time in comparison to folks with jobs, drawing on data from the recently-released American Time Use survey. Many of the findings shouldn’t surprise anyone:
- The unemployed spend a lot less time working
- They do zero work travel
- They spend a lot more time searching and applying for jobs
What is perhaps more surprising is the social toll that joblessness takes, especially over time. People who are unemployed spend less time with friends and family, especially if they are unmarried. Why is this?
The most obvious reasons are instrumental. A person who is unemployed is likely concerned with finances and may be reluctant to engage in social activities, like eating in a restaurant or going to a bar, that cost money (and in fact the data specifically suggest that unemployed people spend less time eating and drinking than their employed counterparts). People who don’t have jobs also lose some convenience opportunities for social interaction, like grabbing lunch with a coworker or planning to get together when everyone leaves work in the evening. This is further exacerbated when someone who is unemployed doesn’t keep to the same type of daily schedule as people with jobs (and frankly, why would you? One benefit of not being on the 9-5 schedule is access to grocery stores and banks when no one else is in line).
I think one of the deeper and more difficult reasons why unemployed people become socially isolated has to do with the dynamics of functional relationships. Human beings are programmed to seek similarity in their social world, and are often uncomfortable with difference. Consider:
- We are more likely to like people when we think they are similar to ourselves
- This effect is so strong that we’re even more attracted to people who have genetic similarity to ourselves
- When we want someone to like us, we engage in something called The Chameleon Effect. Without even realizing it, we change our body language to be more similar to the person we want liking us. We become like a mirror image to that person.
So part of the issue, psychologically speaking, is that when someone loses a job they also lose a key dimension on which they might previously have found similarity with others. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that people like a friend less when he’s lost a job. But rather, they at least temporarily, lack the ability to discuss work-related matters and find similarities in that area. On the flip side, the person who has lost his job may shy away from social situations because he doesn’t feel he has as much to talk about. Without what was previously a significant shared commonality, people may feel uncomfortable in their relationship.
Add to that the fact that unemployment is stigmatized and often emotionally difficult for the people experiencing it. I’ll speak for myself: I feel awkward sometimes around people who I know are having a hard time. I’m not sure whether to address the issue head-on or avoid it, whether to joke or to break out the hugs. I’m not the only one who feels awkward when someone is going through something tough. It’s another dynamic that can make the unemployed feel a little less connected to others.
My pledge after seeing the data about what a typical day looks like for a person who has lost his job is to not avoid the issue with friends in that situation. Acknowledging the fact of joblessness head-on (“how is the job search going?”) and then following friends’ cues is undoubtedly a kinder strategy than silence. It’s also probably not a bad idea to spring for a round of beers or a meal out, if finances allow. After all, someday it might be me needing a friend in a hard time.
Postscript: Anything in my personal photos that I thought would make a good illustration of “awkwardness” or “being alone” was not really appropriate to share with a general audience, so I took to Thinkstock, where I rediscovered that stock photographers must be the weirdest people on earth. Seriously.