“Of all the aspects of social misery, nothing is so heart-breaking as unemployment …”
Jane Addams (1910), “Twenty Years at Hull-House”
Following the outbreak of the crisis in the US in 2007-08 in the US and later on in the Eurozone many politicians and scholars alike have discussed in depth the origins, manifestations and consequences of the crisis. Indeed, observing the public discourse one cannot but see how the public debates, have been characterised by a striking language (e.g. crises, shocks, contagion-effect and bailouts), numerous clichés (e.g. Greek tragedy, drama), financial jargon (e.g. short selling, spread, CDS, bond yields, budget deficits, etc.) and strong images like the Economist’s May 2010 ‘Apocalypse Now’ front cover. Horror indeed. It is not an exaggeration to argue that one can discern a gradual, yet powerful “financialisation” of our lives. Banks, funds, rating agencies have emerged as powerful actors and national governments all over the world seek in this context to adopt a “good pupil strategy” and demonstrate fiscal discipline. Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, the UK, among others, are portrayed as countries that need to pass the “austerity exams”. Life has suddenly become all about debts and deficits. Yet, the true victim of the crisis seems to be someone who is not really heard and noticed: the unemployed…
There is no doubt that high inflation and high levels of national debt and budget deficit can lead to recession and yes, there is no doubt, that regardless of the strategy pursued, the state should be cautious when dealing with its expenses and revenues. Yet, there is no doubt that unemployment represents a danger not only for the individual but also for the society and its stability and cohesion at large. To use the words of Adams, unemployment is heart-breaking indeed.
Indeed, having a job serves seven key functions: “i) provision of income, ii) provision of activity, iii) structuring of time, iv) a source of creativity and mastery, v) an opportunity for social interaction, vi) a source of identity, vii) the provision of a sense of purpose (1981: 38–43).” All these indicate the psychological burden of being unemployed. In this context, unemployment has been linked to stress-related health problem (i.e., strokes or heart attacks) (Burgard, Brand, and House, 2007).
What is even worrisome is that people still have the same skills as before the crisis, and the infrastructure remains the same as before the crisis which means that as Stiglitz (2009: 10) points out: “the problem is that there is an organizational failure, a coordination failure, and a macroeconomic failure. We are failing to put to work these human and physical resources to produce output. What this highlights is the importance of economic policy and organization. It is not our resources that have disappeared. It is the way we organize those resources to create jobs and to create value”. It is about time to change that and realise that priority should be given to real victims of the crisis: the unemployed. After all these are the people that represent the potential for growth, stability and prosperity.
Burgard, Sarah A., Brand, Jennie E., and House James S. 2007. “Toward a Better Estimation of the Effect of Job Loss on Health.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 48(4): 369–384
Cole, M. 2008. “Sociology contra government? The contest for the meaning of unemployment in UK policy debate,” Work, employment and society Vol. 22, No. 1.
Stiglitz, J. 2009. “The global crisis, social protection and jobs.” International Labour Review, Vol. 148, no. 1–2.
von Wachter, T. 2010 “Long-Term Unemployment: Causes, Consequences and Solutions.” Testimony before the Joint Economic Committee of U.S. Congress
von Wachter, T. , Elizabeth Weber Handwerker and Andrew Hildreth. 2008. “Estimating the ‘True’ Cost of Job Loss: Evidence Using Matched Data from California 1991-2000.” Center for Economic Studies Working Paper 09-14