The label of “unemployed” is damning in America’s hyper-productive and career-obsessed culture. It carries a viciously judgmental stigma, characterizing the unemployed individual as lazy, worthless, or uneducated. From the outside, we assume underperformance, unresolvable character flaws, or failure to deliver results — and these may be legitimate reasons for losing a job — but there are deeper issues going on underneath the surface that make chronic joblessness a serious and near insurmountable problem. As you’ll read below, these complex, internal barriers are much bigger than the individuals themselves and often lie outside their control to change on their own.
6 Causes of Chronic Joblessness
The number of factors contributing to one’s inability to obtain or hold a job could not only fill a book, but are often closely related. Comorbidity is a term that means “the simultaneous presence of two chronic diseases or conditions” and it’s often used in research about chronic joblessness. The term itself is one indicator that this is a complex problem — far more complex than what a single blog post could describe. As you read below, keep in mind that many of these factors are usually present, not just one.
- Mental health. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness throughout the year. That’s significant, considering the consequences of mental health conditions (i.e., stress, depression, anxiety, low-self esteem, interpersonal conflict) affect job performance. This means that if someone is struggling with their professional responsibilities, statistics show that there’s a 20% chance they’re facing a difficult episode internally. This figure jumps up to 50% if the worker is also homeless. In other words, it’s likely that someone who can’t keep a job suffers to a degree from mental illness, something they can’t control and struggle to self-regulate.
- Addiction. This dangerous disease induces poor work performance, tardiness or absenteeism, and other workplace issues, further dampening a person’s chances for a prosperous career. Sometimes substance abuse precedes joblessness, sometimes it results from it as a coping mechanism to mitigate stress. Eventually, when addiction has run its course, it’s nearly impossible to maintain a job. One out of six who are unemployed also abuse alcohol or drugs. Last year, The Atlantic published a study that found that as the unemployment rate increases by one percentage point in a given county, the opioid-death-rate rises by 3.6 percent, and emergency-room visits rise by 7 percent. Addiction is treatable and recovery is possible. Unfortunately, many people don’t recognize its symptoms until a major life change (i.e., job loss) occurs, at which point the struggle intensifies.
- Domestic violence and abuse. Domestic violence is devastating and traumatic on many levels. The consequences to victims are far-reaching, including employment. The trauma of experiencing physical abuse can cripple work performance. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for a survivor of domestic abuse to be fired for being a victim of domestic abuse. One teacher in California lost her job after her abusive husband invaded the school parking lot and put the school on lockdown, according to a heartbreaking article by ThinkProgress entitled In All But Six States, You Can Be Fired For Being A Victim Of Domestic Violence. “While her abuser was sent to prison, she was also punished for his crime by losing her employment.” Injuries from domestic violence invite shame, and a domineering partner can control when an employee can or cannot leave their home. Shockingly, nearly a third of women in the United States have experienced domestic violence. The takeaway: unemployment isn’t always the result of an individual’s work performance. Rather, outside forces often subjugate an individual to a life path they wouldn’t have chosen for themselves.
- Low self-esteem. This one is too often minimized and sidelined as a non-issue. But it’s often the deepest problem, beneath many of the other surface-apparent symptoms listed in this article. Elaine Aron, Ph.D., a research and clinical psychologist, and the author of The Undervalued Self, wrote about it in The Wound with No Name. This wound is, tersely put, self-despising. It’s often the foundation for symptoms such as addiction, depression, anxiety, and joblessness. Dr. Aron writes about low self-esteem: “Is this an illness? Are people born with it? While genes may increase vulnerability, in my experience, the cause is always that something truly horrible happened in childhood, usually with their mother and in the first two years of life. She left or died, or was depressed, physically incapacitated, stressed to an extreme degree, narcissistic, an addict or alcoholic, or abused in her own childhood—the bottom line was that she was unresponsive. Study after study with humans as well as other primates show the same disastrous effects when caregiving fails.” The takeaway: read Dr. Aron’s post. The first two lines read: For emotional reasons, some people cannot go out and look for a job. Or they cannot keep a job. She goes on to describe why. In the end, remember that self-loathing is often not a choice of the individual, but a result of something traumatic that happened in critical childhood development years.
- Poor “soft” or life skills. A trade skill or technical skill is required for many jobs, but it’s only half of what it takes to keep a job. Interpersonal communication, self-care, and social responsibility make up the other, crucial half. These softer life skills aren’t taught by a teacher or a professor. They’re taught at home. But what happens when home-life teaches you to spend money and not to save, to be careless with others’ emotions, or to be reckless with your own? Lucy Maggs, former media head at Crisis, a homeless charity in the UK, said, “Many homeless people lack life skills – or soft skills, as they are sometimes called. These include self-confidence, self-awareness, and the ability to structure a day. Most people who have a support network of friends, family and work take these skills for granted. But without them, sustaining employment would be difficult.” One Catalyst organization, Coalfield Development Corporation (see below), has a unique approach to equip Appalachia’s underemployed with crucial soft skills.
- Generational poverty. Generational poverty, entrenched by structural barriers, feels impossible to overcome. Coalfield Development believes that the cause of so many woes in Appalachia is the lack of full lives being lived — the emptiness, the despair built up over generations (illustrated by so many dilapidated buildings or strip mine scars), which leads to a lack of gumption and an inability to dream. One of the West Virginian organization’s most effective tools for reversing generational poverty is mentorship. A mentor opens up the world, the eyes of the mentee, and creates opportunities to learn and dream. A mentor breathes new self-confidence, new creativity, and new chances into a life that feels stuck and useless.
“Growing up, when you say you’re from West Virginia, people would give you this look saying that they felt sorry for you. … But, for me, it’s never been about feeling sorry for anybody. It’s really about rethinking all the assets and value that we had to bring for the rest of the country. ” —Brandon Dennison, CEO of Coalfield Development
Coalfield Development provides direct employment, free certified training, and development events for the region of Appalachia. Recently, in February of 2018, the Appalachian Regional Commission awarded Coalfield with a $248,000 grant to create 50 jobs, retain 50 additional jobs and establish private-sector partnerships with 10 new businesses. Coalfield Development is working to help connect people to stable jobs. In the process, they’re helping to address many of these often overlooked reasons why people struggle to stay employed. The most effective workforce development programs do just that – look beyond the label of “unemployed” to resolve the deeper issues driving the problem.
Remember these six overlooked reasons for unemployment and the vicious comorbidity that afflicts many people’s pursuits of meaningful employment. Joblessness is almost never as straightforward as it seems. Rather, a caring and empathetic conversation will often reveal the complex causes one would not at first expect.