Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust - Pacific Standard

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.
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(Photo: Jim Ye/Flickr)

(Photo: Jim Ye/Flickr)

On the whole, do you trust people? Recent research suggests your answer may depend, in part, on whether you have ever been laid off.

In the journal Social Science Research, University of Manchester's James Laurence reports experiencing job displacement—that is, "involuntary job loss from redundancy, downsizing, restructuring"—appears to lower workers’ faith in their fellow man. What’s more, this increased level of cynicism appears to last for years.

Given the widespread layoffs that occurred in the recent recession, this suggests a future in which a great many of us are eying one another with suspicion—which, considering the psychological and societal benefits of trust, is hardly a happy thought.

The key finding: At age 50, those who had experienced job displacement over the previous 17 years were 4.5 percent less likely to express trust in people than those who had not.

Laurence examined data from Great Britain's National Child Development Study, which periodically surveys 6,840 individuals born in March 1958. He focuses specifically on data from 1991 (when participants were 33 years old) and 2008 (when they were 50), and notes whether they had lost a job due to layoffs or downsizing between those two periods.

Both of those years, the study participants were asked: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people.” At age 33, a robust 69 percent answered “most people can be trusted.” At 50, that number had dropped to 54 percent.

The key finding: At age 50, those who had experienced job displacement over the previous 17 years were 4.5 percent less likely to express trust in people than those who had not. That figure rose to seven percent for those whose sense of self was largely defined by their work. In contrast, no effect was found for people who were laid off or downsized, but had no emotional attachment to work.

Importantly, reduced trust levels were found among participants who had been displaced at least nine years earlier. This suggests their change in attitude was long-lasting, and perhaps permanent.

“Trust tends to remain largely stable over individuals’ lives,” Laurence notes. He adds, however, that this evidence suggests “key life events can generate distrust, persisting long after the event occurred.”

Clearly, for someone whose self-worth is tied closely to his or her work, the message "we no longer need you" leaves a lasting scar—one that colors the person’s attitude toward the entire human race.

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