The “shame” of unemployment

The difference between a broken leg and being unemployed is that unemployment immobilizes your entire life, can last a lot longer than a broken leg, and can cost a lot more. It's strange that a broken leg is considered a handicap, but a potentially life destroying thing like unemployment is considered voluntary, or the result of some defect in the unemployed person, rather than a problem that needs fixing.

In many societies, unemployment is viewed with almost total incomprehension. The various clichés of 'welfare cheats,' 'shirkers,' and 'laziness' are used to describe the lifetime equivalent of a broken leg. Nobody expects people with broken legs to run marathons, but job seekers are expected to find jobs out of thin air.

Interestingly, if grimly, the most negative reactions often come from working class social environments. Unemployment is considered a disease. There are books full of case studies of serious social trauma inflicted on the unemployed in this income zone. The unemployed are often besieged with reminders of the tough times.

In the more sedate middle and upper class regions, it's simply not understood. These are the usually insular income brackets where these things just don't happen to people. Until the Great Recession, the US middle class was more or less immune to serious employment problems, and the shock has been horrific.

Actually, most people spend quite a significant part of their lives outside the workforce. Just about the entire workforce changes long term jobs several times, with some periods of unemployment. Most career models are based on changing jobs, which means by definition, not having a job every so often.

So where's the 'shame' of unemployment? Discounting the ignorance, which is endemic, and any malicious intent in casting aspersions on people out of work, it's a very strong aversion based on instincts. Unemployment is seen, naturally enough, as a threat. It's also perceived as a risk, and sometimes a burden, on principle, often regardless of situations and facts.

The so-called shame of unemployment is based on fear. A breadwinner out of a job is frightened, for good reasons. A group of people sharing costs gets scared when one of them can't contribute. The blame for the problem is transferred to the person, not the real issues.

Impractical and off target as this response usually is, sometimes to the point of denial of basic facts, it has to be addressed. The unemployed person is put under social stress for no particular rational reason or result. One of the more grotesque effects of these situations is that people might as well be talking about the weather, for all the use complaining about someone's unemployment does. It's absurd, as well as useless.

There's no shame in being unemployed. Nothing is achieved by blaming people for their situations, which are beyond their control and not their idea. People don't break their legs on purpose, either. Stick to facts and solving problems, and those problems will get solved a lot faster.