Naturally Selected

Understanding the human animal in the workplace

Coping with Status Loss: The Hidden Cost of Unemployment

Being unemployed affects your social status. The consequences of status loss for your mental and physical health are real, but underappreciated by society. I refer to the status-health association as the Titanic effect. As Europe still faces massive unemployment, it is time for policy makers to consider these risks to avoid another Titanic disaster. Read More

An American's view

The author is from Europe, specifically the Netherlands, where despite a continual stagnation and slow growth in the economy there is a "safety net" system for people to fall back on. The culture of most EU nations allows for and even encourages this. However, in the U.S., this is not the case. I don't know how "conservative" the various parliamentary bodies in EU countries are, but here in the States, the poor and shrinking middle class face another dimension of status loss, and that's embarrassment. Americans are ashamed of receiving public welfare benefits even to cover a temporary loss of resources. It is part and parcel of our "individualist" culture and the romanticization of the legendary "pioneers" who "pulled themselves up by the bootstraps without help from anyone."

As people slowly realize this is not the case, they are nevertheless met with scorn and stigma from the GOP Republicans and the "work culture" that devalues the un- or underemployed as people. Any notion of "we're in the same boat" is derided as a stepping stone to Soviet communism, just as it was in the McCarthy era 1950s. Socialism = communism in the minds of "free market" conservatives here. They will not even bother to observe and learn from successful programs in other countries that might help their fellow Americans, because they feel it would diminish "American sovereignty" somehow. To them, the only issues that matter are punishing gays, "loose women," and the "lazy" unemployed "because God said so." Many Americans are getting sick of this, but at the same time, an equally vocal faction of citizens shares these irrational fears of whatever boogeyman the Sunday preacher cooks up. They set themselves apart from their fellow Americans because they don't like gays, women, blacks or Hispanics and want to see them suffer.

Reagan gutted the unions in the 1980s and put forth the trickle-down policies that have benefited the "one percent" today. Bush deregulated Wall Street and let them run wild. Obama tried and failed to reform the healthcare system -- ours is the only country without universal healthcare. He is still facing backlash from an increasingly far-right wing of the Republican party, who make excuses for why it's "morally wrong" to help poor Americans who they feel brought their plight upon themselves.

Certain groups are demonized, as usual: women, especially unwed mothers (but also women who use birth control to prevent pregnancy); homosexuals and transgenders, nonwhite races, the disabled and mentally ill, and anyone who doesn't fit their narrow paradigm of social acceptance. The unemployed are lepers too, demonized as vagrants or potential criminals.

This particular American shares sympathy and empathy for the plight of those in the EU, but also expresses kudos to you for the fact that a safety net and basic needs like shelter and healthcare are public utilities believed in your culture to be civil rights for all. As bad as it must be right now in the European economy, be thankful that at least the Dutch, Germans, French, British, etc. don't have the added obstacle of social ostracism that the Americans do if they are ever in need of a safety net. Many of us here believe that universal healthcare and extended unemployment benefits could very well have been adopted, had a black president not proposed it to an arch-conservative, mostly white congressional majority -- which also happens to be concentrated mainly in the South. A part of me wishes that the EU would form a greater paramilitary organization and just take over the United States and throw the Republicans out.

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Mark van Vugt is a professor of social and organizational psychology at the VU University Amsterdam and a research associate at Oxford University.


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