Future of Work

The effect of unemployment on your personality

A entrepreneur works at his computer laptop at the so-called "incubator" of French high-tech start-ups "TheFamily" in Paris, France, July 27, 2015.

Unemployment can change your personality. Over time, you may become less friendly, less hard-working, and less open to new experiences. Image: REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Shana Lebowitz
Strategy Reporter, Business Insider
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Some eyebrow-raising research presented at a recent conferencesuggests that young men without college degrees are staying out of the workforce for one major reason: They can live with Mom and Dad and play video games all day.

According to the research, which was highlighted by Ana Swanson in The Washington Post, these men spend three-quarters of the time they once spent working on the computer, mostly playing video games. What's more, happiness among this group has gone up in recent years.

This phenomenon has some negative implications, not solely for the overall economy but also for the men's professional future and even their health.

As Swanson pointed out, young men who stay out of the workforce don't acquire the experience necessary to get jobs in their 30s and 40s. As a result, Swanson writes, they might end up suffering from depression and drug use, two things typically associated with unemployment.

2015 research suggests there's one other issue at play here: Unemployment can change your personality. Over time, you may become less friendly, less hard-working, and less open to new experiences.

The study, which was conducted separately from the research on unemployed young men playing video games, was led by Christopher J. Boyce at the University of Stirling in Scotland.

Researchers drew data from the German Socio-Economic Panel, focusing specifically on the experiences of a subset of participants between 2005 and 2009. In 2005, all participants were employed. 6,308 remained employed; 251 were unemployed and then re-employed; and 210 were unemployed for one to four years.

Results showed that agreeableness, which is similar to friendliness, decreased among both men and women during long-term unemployment (one to four years). But during the first two years of unemployment, men experienced increases in agreeableness.

The researchers can't say for sure why that gender difference exists, but they suspect it's because men initially try to be agreeable to cope with the situation and placate those around them. Then they end up getting disheartened and agreeableness decreases.

The study also indicated that conscientiousness, or the tendency to be orderly and motivated, decreased among unemployed men and women. Though he didn't test the theory, Boyce believes this effect could be part of a vicious cycle: When you're out of work, you become less conscientious, which then makes it harder to find a new job.

A third major effect of long-term unemployment is that openness generally decreases. While the researchers can't say exactly why this happens, Boyce said it's possibly because "the idea of not having a job weighs heavily on your psyche" and you may feel less inspired and adventurous. Moreover, without a job, you may not have the resources to go out and travel or explore your neighborhood.

The bright spot amid these relatively dismal findings is that, once you're re-employed,personality seems to rebound. Boyce cautioned that he and his coauthors need more data to verify whether that's true, but it's what the current data implies.

It's important to note that the experience of any individualunemployed person could differ completely from the generalpicture that the study paints. What's more, these findings on German adults might not apply across the board, or specifically to unemployed young American men.

At the same time, the study has some important implications for the way we think about unemployment.

For one, we should be careful about stigmatizing people who are out of work. Instead of observing their unfavorable personality traits and thinking, "This is why they can't find a job," Boyce advises people to recognize that their personality could be part of a "negative spiral." In other words, unemployment leads to personality change, which in turn leads to difficulty finding work.

Ultimately, these findings suggest that unemployment may be more impactful than we're inclined to believe, in ways that we wouldn't have imagined. That's a scary thought for all those unemployed young men, and potentially another reason for those who care about them to nudge them off the couch.

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