Getting By: How Unemployment Changes Your Life — And Your Brain

Hearing the much-dreaded words “you’re fired,” brings a whirlwind of questions, fears, and uncertainty — either to come before or after the outrage you might feel after being told to clean out your desk. How many unemployment benefits do you qualify for? What will you do to pay for bills? When are you going to start sending out the resume again and how do you make sure it stands out among the pile? How soon until job hunting itself seems to turn into a thankless full-time job?

Sure, the first few days you can spend sleeping in and watching TV as you plan your comeback, but now science has brought up a new concern. Losing your job changes your life, that’s for sure, but a closer look suggests that, if you find yourself unemployed for long enough, its effects may change your mind and your brain, too.

A study conducted by researchers at the American Psychological Association concluded that the effects of extended unemployment reach beyond the individual and their family in question — with consequences that are psychological, impacting the individual in a number of socio-economic ways for the long term. According to the research, long periods of unemployment may cause the individual to be less open-minded, less conscientious, and less agreeable, all traits that can potentially make it more difficult for them to find work again.

The researchers’ findings are a startling revelation for psychologists, many of whom believed that people have fixed personalities which more or less remain the same throughout our lives, while giving weight to the theory that external forces can also greatly impact our own basic personality. In order to conduct the study, Christopher J. Boyce, who serves as a research fellow at U.K.’s University of Stirling, along with his associates, conducted an analysis of data taken from a survey done by the German Socio-Economic Panel study, which has been cited in a number of clinical research efforts.

Boyce and his team focused in on the responses of 6,769 participants, all residents of Germany, who had each underwent a personality assessment twice in four years, from the beginning of 2006 through the end of 2009. During that period, approximately 3.1 percent of the total participants included in the study had been unemployed throughout the study’s entire duration. An additional 3.7 percent of the applicants had been jobless periodically, each episode lasting for no more than several months, as they were able to quickly secure employment afterward.

The survey had been designed with the basic five personality traits used by psychiatrists to evaluate their patients: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness. Looking over the answers, Boyce’s team began a process of elimination to determine whether or not personality changes evident over time on the survey were in any way related to unemployment — a life event that typically awards a significant amount of points on the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, used for measuring a patient’s susceptibility to illness.

With each set of answers, the researchers took into consideration how long the individual was jobless for, as well as differences in gender, and most importantly, the levels of re-employment, before concluding the study. Gender certainly proved to be a crucial factor as well. In instances of chronic unemployment, men retained higher levels of agreeableness throughout the first two years of their unemployment, compared to employed men. However, these levels then declined after the first two years. The level of agreeableness declined among women, however, for each year they were jobless.

We may see our jobs as just a means of paying the bills — something I myself can identify with as a freelance writer, having had to work a string of temp and seasonal jobs to make ends meet. Yet, I’ve also come to the realization that it’s sometimes impossible to separate the individual from their career. Sure, it took some time before my stories could pay for more than just lunch, but planning one could take the entire day and setting my own hours soon became impossible the more that story ideas came to me in the middle of the night, or when I constantly revised my cover letter and hunted for new classifieds.  What you do becomes part of your identity — and the brain offers even more proof of that.

As rough as your day at the office might have been, it’s fair to say that you got something accomplished — and you did get to go home with a bit of dopamine reward, something further reinforced by the functions of the prefrontal cortex. It’s part of the reason why we all develop our signature skills around the workplace — whether it’s typing over 80 words per minute, or flawlessly folding a shirt. The longer the time spent away from a job routine, the less active the working memory, and the less your brain finds a reward in the same place. Instead, the TV, or your refrigerator, seems more likely of a place to get a much bigger reward in a much shorter period of time. Any good habits you may have had can quickly become replaced with bad ones.

Whether your job experience was good or bad, there was always the sense that you were part of something greater than yourself — feelings that are associated with the brain’s prefrontal cortex. This part of your brain is also responsible for cognitive control, where goals are represented by vast patterns of constant activity. Neurons in the prefrontal cortex provide bias signals to other regions within the brain, allowing them all to guide neural activity along connections of inputs and internal states, enabling the individual to perform a given task. It’s the region that helps you map out your morning routine and allows your brain to control it in the event you’ve overslept or when you need a new route to work.

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