An Even Darker Side of Unemployment

As the numbers of the unemployed continue to rise, so do the fears of those who are employed.

Psychologists are familiar with “survivor guilt,” the self-accusations that wrack those who have been a spared a trauma.  We know that those who suffer a reversal or injury often complain “Why me?”  Less well known but just as common is the anguished question, “Why not me?”  “Why was I spared?”  Luck is not an unmixed blessing.

BusinessWeek reported on a study to be published by the Yale Press:  Turbulence: Boeing and the State of American Workers and Managers.  Over the course of the six years of the study, 33% of Boeing’s workforce was let go:  “In the greatest surprise of all, the researchers discovered that the people who had been laid off often were happier than those left behind. Many had new jobs, even if they didn’t always pay as well.”  The authors discovered that “average depression scores were nearly twice as great for those who stayed with Boeing vs. those who left. The laid-off were less likely to binge drink, often slept better, and had fewer chronic health problems.” (See, “When the Laid-Off Are Better Off”)

There are several reasons for this.  Perhaps the most obvious is that the survivors expected they too would be fired eventually;  their temporary reprieve did nothing to spare them becoming a future casualty.  A second reason had to do with being powerless to change their fate; those waiting to be fired knew that it had little to do with their competence, and no matter what they did to reposition themselves, they would end up with a pink slip.  Management was determined to cut costs, and, for better or worse, they were a cost.  Finally, the anticipated threat is worse than the reality you can face;  once you know what you have to adapt to you can set about dealing with it.

This does not apply only to unemployment, of course.  One can also fear the threat of illness or infirmity, the risk of floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and accidents. The lack of an adequate, secure social safety net makes us all the more vulnerable, and as we watch our friends and neighbors succumb to foreclosures, indebtedness, illness, impoverishment, and bankruptcy we cannot but see and fear the danger to ourselves.

The survivor syndrome has been eliminated as a psychiatric diagnosis, but that might be in part because it has come to be seen now as normal, part of the stress of ordinary life.  Thoreau observed, “most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  He captured something of the ordinary despair of those who see the suffering of those around them, and wait to be afflicted themselves.