Analyzing decades of data, sociologist Jennie Brand of the University of California, Los Angeles and Sarah Burgard of the University of Michigan found workers who have been laid off even once are 35 percent less likely to be involved in community or social organizations than workers who have never lost a job under those circumstances.
What’s more, that lowered likelihood of civic involvement remains steady decades after the involuntary termination.
“That surprised us,” Brand said. “It’s not like they got re-employed and things went back to normal. There was a change in their lifetime trajectory.
“Just one disruption in employment makes workers significantly less likely to participate in a whole range of social activities, from joining book clubs to participating in the PTA and supporting charities,” she said.
“After being laid off or downsized, workers are less likely to give back to their community.”
The study, published in the September issue of the journal Social Forces, grew out of Brand’s longtime interest in the effects of losing a job, which is an increasingly relevant field of research. As Louis Uchitelle of The New York Times wrote in his 2006 book The Disposable American, the attitude of corporations toward their workers changed fundamentally between the mid-1970s and the late 1990s, as job security gradually gave way to “the easy and frequent use of layoffs.”
The Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics has tracked mass layoffs since 1995, during which time “an average of 5,400 extended mass layoff events and almost 1,100,000 workers from private nonfarm industries were identified annually.” Numbers peaked in the 9/11 year of 2001, while this year layoffs are higher to date than any year since 2003.
As she was researching the consequences of this shift, Brand was also reading the work of Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam, whose best-selling 2000 book Bowling Alone documented the decline in civic engagement over that same period. (His 2003 volume Better Together suggested the impulse to join others in a common purpose may be re-emerging in different forms.)
To look at whether the two trends were related, Brand and Burgard turned to the well-known Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which collected information from Wisconsin high school graduates in 1957 and followed them through the decades. The high response rate of the participants resulted in “a wealth of data,” Brand reported, although she cautioned that the group isn’t necessarily representative of America as a whole (for one thing, nearly all participants are white).
They found that between 1975 and 2005, 25 percent of the workers participating in the study were displaced — that is, they were laid off, downsized or forced to find other employment when their business closed or relocated. They compared those people to study participants who had never been laid off, looking specifically at six forms of societal engagement: churches; charitable organizations; youth groups or community centers; business or political groups; professional organizations; and social or leisure organizations, such as country clubs or sports teams.
They found the laid-off workers were less likely to participate in four of the six categories — all except for business/political and professional organizations. The largest impact was on youth groups or community centers. Among non-displaced workers in the study, 25 percent participated in such organizations in 1975 (when most were 35 years old), a number that dropped to 19 percent in 1992. Among displaced workers, the fall was much steeper, from 24 percent participation in 1974 to 12 percent in 1992.
That same drop-off did not occur for those who were laid off later in life — that is, between the ages of 53 and 64. “Being laid off doesn’t appear to be as socially damaging for older workers as younger ones,” Brand said, noting that losing one’s job later in life can be redefined as taking “early retirement.”
Previous research has suggested that so-called “disorganized workers” — those who jump frequently from job to job — tend to be less involved in their communities. While that is not shocking, the fact that being laid off once has such a substantial impact is a surprise — and something of a puzzle. Brand admits she doesn’t have a good explanation.
“The first thing that came to my mind is laid-off people are depressed and often downwardly mobile,” she said. “They were making a certain income and had a certain status. I have a suspicion there is a component of embarrassment and shame (that makes people less likely to interact with their neighbors).”
Another possibility is a continuing sense of bitterness on the part of the laid-off person. No doubt some people who unexpectedly find themselves unemployed conclude that in an uncertain world, it’s prudent to look out for No. 1.
“Social engagement often involves an element of social trust and a sense that things are reciprocal — that you give some support if you get some support, and you benefit from society if society benefits from you,” Brand said. “When workers are displaced, the tendency is to feel as though the social contract has been violated, and we found they are less likely to participate.”
Finally, some studies have suggested a correlation between layoffs and divorce, with the turmoil of losing a job often leading to instability within a family. Brand suggested that could also be a factor, since the rate of participation in community organizations is higher among married people.
Whatever its cause, Brand finds the trend unsettling. “We think of social participation as being a landmark of American society,” she said. “European observers and theorists, such as de Tocqueville, have commented on how engaged Americans are in social life. It’s so important for the effective functioning of schools, neighborhoods and communities.”
So is this system unraveling? Not necessarily, according to Brand. “If employment security becomes the norm, people may be less shocked by their job separations and less affected by them,” she said. “I’m leery of predicting the future.”
Nevertheless, the problem exists right now. Brand suggests that social groups, such as charities and churches, should be made aware of this trend so they can reach out to the recently unemployed.
“They should be sensitive to the fact that these people tend to withdraw from society,” she said. “Perhaps if these workers helped support these institutions in the past, it’s time for the groups to reciprocate and help them get back on their feet.”