Unemployment's Human Costs

Everyone knows that the current unemployment rate is high (9.2 percent) and has been high for over two years. Adult men are more likely to be unemployed than adult women (9.1 percent vs. 8.0 percent), with teenagers (24.5 percent), whites (8.1 percent), blacks (16.2 percent) and Hispanics (11.6 percent) showing the highest rates of unemployment. Forty-four percent of the unemployment have been out of work for over 27 weeks. Length of unemployment has been much higher during the recent economic downturn compared to previous periods of unemployment in the past 40 years. For example, in today's economy the average duration of unemployment is about 26 weeks, but in 1980 it was 4.8 weeks. Unemployment is longer and deeper now than almost any of us can recall. And many people are no longer counted in these figures because they have given up. We all know someone who has lost their job -- and many readers have also been out of work, either now or in the past. And many more with jobs worry about losing their jobs. Unemployment will always be a problem; it is always there -- on the horizon -- for millions of people.

As widespread as the problem is today, the facts about the effects of unemployment on the quality of life are even more distressing. Unemployment is not simply a statistical figure, a number, a political point to make. It is about human beings, their families and their future. And the facts are not comforting.

The first fact to consider is that unemployment actually eventually kills some people. Mortality rates are higher for people who have been previously unemployed. In a study in Finland by Pekka Martikainen of the University of Helsinki, mortality for the previously unemployed was 2.5 times higher than for people not previously unemployed. Even when considering initial health differences and other demographics for the unemployed, the increased mortality is 47 percent. Margaretha Voss and her colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm followed 20,632 twins in Sweden from 1973 to 1996. They found that unemployment increased mortality over this period of time, with significant increases of suicide, injuries and accidents, and with higher mortality rates among the less educated in this group.

Second, unemployment leaves a "scar" for many. That is, the effects seem to continue even when people get a job. This continued problem includes increased likelihood of future unemployment, decreased life-time earnings (even when discounting the period of lost earnings during the jobless period) and continued worries about losing the next job. Research by Paul Gregg and Emma Tominey of the London School of Economics indicates that youth who suffer periods of unemployment have a 13- to 21-percent decrease in earnings by the age of 41. Unemployment, for many, may continue to affect life chances.

Of course, the greatest risk is the higher mortality, which is truly alarming.

Third, people who are unemployed have greater risks for a wide range of medical and psychiatric problems including depression, insomnia, anxiety, worry, suicide, feelings of helplessness, low self-esteem, malnutrition, cardiovascular conditions (especially heart attacks), alcoholism, increased smoking and generally poor physical health. Unemployment leads to increases in cholesterol. According to the Pew Research Center and research by others, the unemployed are also at greater risk to abuse drugs and engage in crimes, especially burglary. Relationship conflicts, marital distress and the loss of friends are not uncommon among the unemployed.

Fourth, many of the unemployed delay important life decisions, such as marriage and having children. The unemployed, fearing the depletion of their financial resources and the uncertainty of future financial security, often experience this "lost time" during their period of joblessness. Life for many seems delayed. The opportunities and freedoms available to the rest of us are lost -- some may have a difficult time recovering.

As pessimistic as these facts suggest, there are implications for positive action. First, it is important for government and charitable agencies to address the health and psychological implications for the unemployed. Providing opportunities for lifestyle and mental health counseling and other support is essential. Second, unemployed people can also take a proactive and problem-solving approach to their time between jobs. In a previous posting on HuffPost, "Surviving Unemployment: How to Keep Your Head After Losing Your Job," I outline 10 tips for handling this difficult time. There is no easy solution; this is, for many, the most difficult time in their lives. The unemployed are not strangers to us; they are our family, friends, colleagues -- even ourselves. It can happen to anyone. Taking it seriously -- as a nation, a community, a family, a friend and as someone unfortunately unemployed -- is as essential as winning any war in a foreign land.