Personality vs. Unemployment

Personality vs. Unemployment (pt. 1 of 3)
by Thomas Auflick, LMHCA


Current research cited on the American Psychological Association’s (APA) website discusses how “unemployment can change peoples’ core personalities, making some less conscientious, agreeable and open, which may make it difficult for them to find new jobs” (2015). To be fair, unemployment is difficult for most people and whether this state is forced or chosen, personalities modify to accommodate the role one plays in society at any given moment. Perhaps this is more astute in those socioeconomic classes whose personalities are defined and linked to career and work.

If unemployment is a choice of will, how does one define existence in relation to their comrades who identify in life by what they do for work? In either case, unemployment, whether by choice or loss, will redefine the individual for that period and change their personality to accommodate that role. 

Career defines our identity. The social order of humanity at a cocktail party brings forth our place in the world from the question—“So, what do you do?” This question becomes a basis of how we got to the party. The unemployed may find themselves ostracized at a party and treated as if they have the plague—because often our thoughts tend to consider ‘what do they have to offer anyway—besides wanting help, a ride or to borrow money.’ For the unemployed, the stress of not knowing who they are exactly at a given moment leads to a place of impermanence. An existence without a present sense of ground; a life temporarily caught in the past and the future at the same time.

This is to say that unemployed people are subjugated to what they were in their former job or who they will be in their next position. Even if you identify as a professional in some capacity, you are further defined by the organization you represent. If you formerly worked as a mechanical engineer for a large aerospace manufacturer, you cannot continue to define yourself in any certain terms other than an unemployed engineer.

Unless you are currently engaged in your career, having the security of place, time and income, you exist as a mere reflection of what you were or where you might be in the future. In this place, one’s agreeableness or openness is compromised by the fear of the unknown. Enwrapped in uncertainty, people find it difficult to be open or agreeable. “What do you do for a living? No, REALLY, what do you do?” When you don’t have a job, your identity at the party is the unemployed person or someone in-between.  

For my clients caught in the world of unemployment, I often hear how the perception of the outside world casts them into roles of failures, lazy individuals, or not good enough. They feel society perceives them as individuals who deserve to be without work because they did not try hard enough in their last jobs to remain secure, did not have what it takes to stay or did not put enough effort into securing a new job.

I hear the unemployed decry the difficulties of maintaining a state of agreeableness and openness during unemployment. In the face of constant rejection and imperfect possibilities, people in the unemployment line are in a quagmire of negativity. Looking for an ideal job is often an impossibility and leads people to a place of compromise. Job listings provide detailed descriptions for the ideal candidate that does not truly exist. For the unemployed, the ideal further translates to a place of non-existence of the self. 

Even in the face of optimism, when people find suitable published job opportunities for which they may apply, the odds of securing a job are long. To aid those lost in the world of unemployment, the employment marketing experts often advise the unemployed to look for jobs in the “Hidden Job Market.” Advertised jobs by the labor market represent a fraction of the actual employment opportunities available to job seekers.

The “Hidden Job Market” exists in the world of those who have not yet released job opportunities to the advertised labor market. To find these jobs individuals need to make connections through networking in order to make their presence known and to make those opportunities visible. Here, the personality becomes less conscientious because no matter how much a job seeker needs to access the “Hidden Job Market,” their tendency is to rely more heavily on the published job market. From a psychological standpoint, the natural tendency is for the individual to gravitate toward what is visible rather than what is “Hidden.”

Even the active job seekers who do follow the latest directions from employment experts to find those hidden jobs, I hear the same level of frustration from rejection that predominates the process of an employment search. For those accepted into the candidate pool for a potential job, the process still boils down to subjectivity. It’s like finding a romantic partner for a long-term monogamous relationship; it usually depends on factors totally unrelated to the logical objective criteria that you bring to the table of opportunity.

We all know the list of unfair and biased factors related to discrimination and oppression. If one does make it to the final interview and is not chosen—how does that person evaluate themselves afterward? Rejection most often leads to criticism within the individual. In this realm agreeableness, openness or conscientiousness, well usually become victims of loss to the process of rejection.

My work in the last 20 years with the unemployed and underemployed has shown me the limiting factors of agreeableness and openness on personality for those without the means of self-sufficiency. Those who suffer forced dislocation from employment often endure loss, trauma, and oppression. For the majority of people, unexpected or unplanned career transition initiates greater levels of stress and anxiety that makes individuals adopt new personality traits that reflect their condition. Unemployment presents unnatural life circumstances that play against a person’s natural tendency or equilibrium of self.

From an evolutionary standpoint, we have evolved to a point where our work is not a direct link to our survival. Our survival has been transitioned from a hunter-gatherer society, to an agrarian, to an industrial, and now, a time of knowledge and information. We have lost a conscious link to the reality of supporting our basic needs as we fold into an abstract world of invisible currency and information.

Our existence is based upon the greater role of our species as a collective. Because the nature of our work does not connect directly to the sustenance of our basic needs, the nature of our work takes on a new meaning that incorporates into the being of our personality in relation to the greater collective. A history of evolution drives us to work for our survival and brings us into a place of meaning with a need to find a role that contributes and provides. To lose a job—is to lose one’s basic understanding of place and core identity. 

We find ourselves disconnected in times of unemployment—disconnected from our identity, livelihood, people, and traits that normally keep us connected to our world. Each individual’s journey through the process of unemployment and back to the world of work provides a unique story. I have guided and educated people on strategies of re-employment through teaching them marketing strategies to turn them into valuable commodities desirable to the labor market.

Often people take the strategies I give them and find their way back into the world of work in a fashion that brings them through an uncomfortable yet tolerable process. Many more find the path back to employment an arduous journey. For these individuals who have a greater struggle to find work, disconnection creates a separation from the world that often leads to symptoms of depression and anxiety. To battle symptoms of depression and anxiety that stem from unemployment and disconnection, I see a great response to treatment for individuals in group therapy. On a weekly basis, I am honored to lead two separate therapeutic support groups that provide an environment where people find connection and a place to process adjustment disorders that perpetuate negative changes in personality.

The therapeutic group process promotes an environment of agreeableness, openness, and conscientiousness. When we become disenfranchised by conditions of life that disconnect us from each other, there should be a place where we can find non-judgmental community and support. We deserve to live in a compassionate world that empowers us through empathy, care, and honesty. This is how we find a way to cope with unexpected changes to our lives that define our personalities. In group therapy, we struggle together.

So when my group therapy clients are asked at a party what they do, they can respond: “I am a member of a community fighting to find its place.” As a member of this community and humanity, I hope for greater support and understanding from the employed. If your career identity is secure in this moment, know that your security can fall prey to unemployment at any time, but your place and the name does not have to be lost when you have the accepting company of others.

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This is a commentary on the APA article "Basic Personality Changes Linked to Unemployment, Study Finds." You can read the full artcle at http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2015/02/personality-unemployment.aspx