How Unemployment Impacts Your Personality

How Unemployment Impacts Your Personality
Image credit: kate hiscock | Flickr

Unemployment is no cakewalk. It's well documented that an involuntary jobless state can take a steep toll on one's emotional and physical health, and now new research illuminates a more subtle, if highly corrosive, consequence the inability to find work can have on a person. In short, it appears that unemployment has the power to change what we generally consider relatively fixed – i.e., it can alter our personality, making us less agreeable and less conscientious, while affecting our levels of openness, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Stirling in Scotland, traced the employment history of more than 6,000 participants over the course of several years by having them fill out a pair of personality tests -- measuring agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, extraversion and neuroticism -- four years apart. For the initial test, all participants were employed. But by the time they took the second test, participants had splintered into three distinct categories: employed, unemployed, or re-employed after a span of joblessness.

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Self-reported personality results for the employed changed little from the first test to the second, but self-evaluations by the unemployed – particularly those who had been out of work for a long time –changed significantly. Levels of agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness were all depleted.

Interestingly, unemployment affected men and women differently. According to the researchers, while men's agreeableness initially shot up after losing a job (perhaps a fleeting sense of freedom?), reality eventually set in around year three of unemployment, at which point mean agreeableness scores dropped precipitously. Meanwhile, for women, agreeableness levels waned immediately after they lost their jobs, and continue to decrease every year they remain out of work. The authors pin this disparity onto the hypothesis that appearing agreeable in the workplace is more important for women than it is for men; for women, when the job disappears, so does the source and incentive of the personality trait.

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"The results are consistent with the view that personality changes as a function of contextual and environmental factors," they write.

The takeaway: alongside the known toll unemployment takes on one's emotional and physical health, it also seems to have a long-term impact on personality, which could lead to social withdrawal. (Worryingly, another recent study has linked one-in-five suicides worldwide to unemployment; the suicide risk associated with not have a job, interestingly, was higher for stronger economies where not going to work every day stands out more starkly.) Conclude the researchers, "The results indicate that unemployment has wider psychological implications than previously thought."

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