What does job loss mean? Real stories recount the effects

Phyllis Hunsinger

“U.S. Economy Lost 140,000 Jobs in December;” “Keystone XL Pipeline Cancellation, Thousands of Jobs Lost;” “Impact of Illegal Immigration Disproportionately Affects Adult Black Males;” “$15 Minimum Wage Could Cost 1.4 Million Jobs;” “Plan to Raise Corporate Taxes Would Reduce GDP by 0.8 percent and Eliminate 159,000 Jobs.” These are some of the headlines reflecting the effects of COVID-19 closures and a change in the presidential administration.

Most people recognize these headlines also reflect economic problems. But how many really understand what’s lost? What is the effect from the loss of a job? These aren’t just statistics. Behind every single job is a person, a life and a story to be told. In massive layoffs, entire communities are forever changed.

Economically, the loss of a job can be devastating. According to the Scholars Strategy Network, studies of job loss over the past several decades found the earnings of displaced workers fell by 30 percent to 60 percent in the year immediately after a job loss. Five or more years later, the earnings of displaced workers remain depressed by 13 percent to 32 percent. Long term, those who experience job loss in the two prior decades have 8 percent less wealth than comparable workers who didn’t experience job loss. Time out of the workplace can rarely be recovered.

Of course, jobs are more than simply a way to pay the bills. Work is a huge part of our identity. Losing a job can constitute one of the most stressful experiences in life. Jobs influence the way we view ourselves and increase self-confidence by underscoring trust in abilities and qualities. Jobs give purpose, structure and meaning to our lives. Work is recognized in society as an essential responsibility to provide for the needs of oneself and one’s family. There’s dignity and pride in work.

Dignity is defined as the personal quality of being worthy of honor. The dignity of a person is lived out in society by the fulfillment of personal responsibilities. There is dignity in having a job, in supporting ourselves and contributing to society. Work is associated with a plethora of non-economic outcomes. Studies show there are lower incidences of crime and drug abuse, greater social engagement, stronger families and measurably better health when individuals work. The sense of belonging gives workers a purpose that doesn’t generally exist with the unemployed.

Results of studies quoted in Scholars Strategy Network showed middle-aged long-employed workers who lose their jobs in mass layoffs experience death rates in the following few years that are 50 percent to 100 percent higher than similar workers who aren’t displaced. Displaced workers report increased stress and anxiety and worse mental health in the years after job loss. In the years just after employment cessation for a family breadwinner, children are more likely to repeat a grade, indicating academic difficulties accompanying job loss. The disruption of the family unit is a major effect of job loss.

Headlines are written and read with interest. The real stories lie behind the headlines. Presidential executive orders, thoughtless policy legislation and governors’ edicts can have unintended consequences, not the least of which are the economic and social destruction left behind. Connie Wanberg, a professor at the University of Minnesota known for her work on unemployment, put it this way: “Work provides us time structure, identity, purpose and social interactions. When you lose all that, it creates lots of difficulties for people.”