What it Means to be Without Work

Common sense suggests that suicides will increase in times of economic hardship, like all other expressions of psychological distress.  So far, however, the evidence has been mixed.  But a new study: “found a clear correlation between suicide rates and the business cycle among young and middle-age adults.”

The reason the correlation was not found earlier seems to be that researchers were not focusing on those who work.  As The New York Times put it in its account:  the “correlation vanished when researchers looked only at children and the elderly.”  Looking at the workforce revealed a different picture.

I’m no expert on suicide, but as a psychoanalyst and therapist I know how important it is for people to experience their competence, to use their skills, to be active and feel effective.  Most of us get that from work, along with the sense of belonging.  But without a job, workers can have trouble sustaining their self-esteem.  Worse, they often feel the shame of being unable to support themselves or their families.

I wonder what past researchers were thinking?  To be sure, an economic recession has wide and varied effects.  Many families must forego things they have taken for granted, not just the luxuries they hope for.  Children have to do without new clothes.  The elderly may have to forego medical checkups or trips to visit their children.  It may even be embarrassing for the jobless to apply for unemployment compensation or food stamps.  But that is hardly enough to drive people to suicide.

As one of the authors of the new study put it: “Once people age out of the work force, there seems to be no relationship between the business cycle and their vulnerability.” (See, “Study Ties Suicide Rate in Work Force to Economy.”)  Having “aged out” of the workforce, they still have their pensions, their families and friends.  They may be poorer than they were, but they were able to manage a transition from a world they belonged to.  The jobless who are used to working, on the other hand, have to deal with the emotional shock of being rendered suddenly useless, irrelevant.

As a society we have gradually eliminated all the ways that people can gain value from life – except work.  A few still think about their relationship to God, some devote themselves to art, while others concentrate on sports.  But these alternative sources of meaning have slowly but surely given way to work.  That is how we gain our identities, establish our place in the world, and acquire value.

At yet we so often forget that.  As a society we don’t make it easy for people to find jobs, to get the right training, adjust to unemployment or even retire.  We place work at the center of our values, but too often we make it hard to find work and impossible to hold on to it.