An interesting study by sociologists Jennie Brand (UCLA) and Sarah Burgard (Univ. of Michigan) found that workers who laid off even once are 35% less likely to be involved in community or social organizations than workers who have never been jobless.
The plus is that this study (the high quality Wisconsin Longitudinal Study) tracks Wisconsin high school graduates for decades from their graduation in 1957. The caveat is that this group was almost entirely white Americans so it is hard to know whether this applies to a New York or an L.A.
What’s especially troubling is that it doesn’t appear to be a simple explanation of people who are jobless temporarily disengaging from community to find a new job. The scholars found that those who had been jobless had lower levels of civic engagement decades after they were laid off, and this “civic gap” remained relatively stable. Author Brand describes them as being on lifetime lower civic trajectory across a range of civic activities, from joining book clubs to participating in the PTA and supporting charities.
Their study tracked six forms of civic engagement: churches; charitable organizations; youth groups or community centers; business or political groups; professional organizations; and social or leisure organizations, such as country clubs or sports teams. The average participation of respondents decreased over this period, consistent with the trends highlighted by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. But the 25% of workers in the study laid off between 1975 and 2005 dropped faster (statistically significantly) in all categories other than business or political groups, and professional organizations. The declines were largest on participation in youth groups or community centers. The only group that seemed somewhat exempt from these effects were those that were involuntarily let go in their later years (after age 53), when they could recharacterize this as ‘early retirement.’
Brand admits she doesn’t know why job displacement has this long-term effect. She suspects it might be one of three causes: 1) those who are laid off are depressed and often downwardly mobile; 2) there may be embarrassment or shame with job less that causes people not to interact with others; 3) there may be bitterness or a loss of trust in others that comes from the implicit social contract being torn asunder that causes long-term withdrawal.
The study (“Effects of Job Displacement on Social Participation: Findings Over the Life Course of a Cohort of Joiners”) will appear in the September issue of Social Forces. See earlier research report on this.
Brand’s study grew out of her interest in the rapidly growing practice of companies laying off Americans (see Louis Uchitelle, The Disposable American, 2006) and work by my colleague Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone, 2000, and Better Together, 2004) on social capital and civic engagement.
Given the looming economic recession/depression(?) this obviously doesn’t bode well for longer-term civic engagement. Although it’s also worth noting that the Long Civic Generation that came of age through the Great Depression and two World Wars has been far more civic and socially engaged their entire lives than the generations that preceded or followed. We hope that the next Administration can work together with businesses, non-profits, religious leaders, and civic leaders to think about how to spur greater civic engagement in this period of far less economic security and confidence.
Tip of the hat to Robert Putnam for alerting me to this study.