Businesses often treat layoffs as one of several tools they can deploy to increase profitability. But the toll of layoffs as a routine business practice can be extraordinary for the people who lose their jobs.
In his late 40s, Robert* earned in the comfortable six figures before he was laid off. When I spoke with him, he had been unemployed for close to a year. “One of the things you feel when you’re unemployed is you’re hyper-sensitive to disrespect,” he told me. “You’re feeling like you’re not appreciated, you’re not respected, because clearly nobody wants you, right?” Pausing, he stated to underline his point: “You’re constantly struggling with … identity issues on a daily basis.”
Robert was one of the dozens of long-term unemployed men and women I spoke to who held some of the few “good” jobs — jobs that are secure, intended to be of a substantial duration, have regular working hours, and come with benefits, such as a 401(k). In my research, these jobs included marketing, project management, finance, and more.
I interviewed these unemployed professionals in the U.S. over the course of several years, from 2013 to 2016. They had certain things in common: They held four-year college degrees at a minimum. As part of the parameters of my research, they were all in heterosexual marriages and had dependent children. Their spouses were, for the most part, employed. And they were quite affluent, with household incomes close to triple or quadruple the national average when both partners were employed. Most participants in this sample were white, but the sample also included some brown, Arab, and Black individuals. In median terms, men and women had been unemployed for six and eight months, respectively. I set these parameters because I wanted to be able to compare what unemployment means and how it is experienced in families where men lose a job and families where women lose a job.
I also spoke to their spouses, separately, and in some cases their children, too. With a few participants, I spent a few weeks hanging out in their homes to get a deeper sense of their lives.
What I found was that the struggle to maintain self-respect in the face of job loss was palpable, particularly for men. For some, it made them prickly in everyday conversations, especially if the conversation was heading toward the state of their job-searching. The story was different for women: Most people in their lives saw little urgency in their job search, assuming that they would be happy to use the time to be a stay-at-home mom.
No matter when layoffs occur, or what shape they take — in some sectors, like banking, layoffs are an annual exercise, while in others, like tech, even seemingly impermeable companies like Google have recently proven to be vulnerable — recognizing what losing a job means to people, and what happens to their relationships, remains at least as important as acknowledging financial and career setbacks. While unemployment exerts a toll on the individual and those near and dear to them, this toll is not always equal. In fact, men and women in heterosexual relationships often have very different experiences after being laid off.
In this article, I’ll focus on how three types of relationships are affected by job loss: marriage, parenting, and extended family. Using research, I will explain how job losses make traditional gender roles more salient. Understanding this can not only help you navigate your own relationships if you lose a job, but can help the people closest to you understand the feelings and emotions that underly a massive change to your life and identity. I will also point to ways society can reduce the pressure of gender stereotypes when layoffs occur.
Unemployment and Marriage
For the unemployed and their spouses, navigating how to discuss the unemployment, and even more importantly, job-searching, is tricky terrain. Given the longstanding expectation in the U.S. for men to be breadwinners, discussions of men’s job loss and job-searching tended to dominate everyday conversations — but only when it was the man who lost his job.
In one instance, Terry and his wife Sandy established a daily ritual of discussing Terry’s unemployment and job search. Terry had lost his job and Sandy was trying to be supportive. When Terry was winding up his day of job-searching from home and Sandy was on her long commute home from work, she’d call him from her car so they could debrief. Chuckling, Sandy described their daily phone call in the following way: “It’s kind of like taming the little creature in The Little Prince. You meet at the same time every day and you’re expected to be there.” She added, “I don’t know that I’ve tamed him or whatever, but [the call] is something I look forward to, because I like to hear what he has to say. It’s an important call for me.” For Terry, too, this call was important, and he noted that it reinforced that he is not all alone in his unemployment and job search.
At times, however, daily conversations focused on men’s job-searching can be overwhelming. Robert, who we met earlier, explained how he experienced his wife’s enthusiasm for his job-searching as pressure. “She’s excited about it. And so her way of being supportive and helpful is she’ll send me jobs that she thinks I should look at.” Robert pauses before adding, “And some of them are interesting and good. But a lot of them, I just don’t want to do it, you know? She’s gotten a little more: ‘You got to get a job.’”
For the unemployed women in my study, on the other hand, I found that discussions about job-searching with their spouses are limited. Their unemployment was not framed as an “urgent problem” that needed to be rectified. Instead, there was an assumption that women could enjoy being stay-at-home mothers, even in the context of a forced job loss. Because the pressure to find a job was limited, so were the discussions around job-searching.
For example, Darlene, who earned three times her husband’s annual salary, was fired. When I asked Darlene who she discussed her job loss and job searching with, she said, “Well, I don’t really have anybody.” Weighing her response, she added, “Sometimes I will talk to [my husband], but I feel sort of like I have to be the rock.” As a result, Darlene relied on a patchwork support system she has assembled together: a group of unemployed professionals in her neighborhood who met weekly, a counsellor she saw on occasion (although as her unemployment continued she was worried about being able to maintain this expense), and a few women from her networking circle with whom she was in sporadic touch via email. Discussions focused on her job-searching were simply not a daily occurrence in her home.
Unemployment and Parenting
The dominance of a husband’s job loss and the relative disregard of a wife’s also manifested in people’s role as parents. I found that unemployed husbands were extremely sensitive to any sense that their children had to make any material cutbacks. Kevin, who lost his job, was troubled about his six-year-old daughter, Rose’s, deep desire for a puppy. Together with his wife, Kevin told Rose that the dog would have to wait until Kevin got a new job because it was an “extra expense.” Kevin recounted that “when we see somebody [with their dog] out in public [Rose will say], ‘Oh! I’m going to get a pet, too, as soon as my dad gets a job.’” Kevin felt that he was failing in his fatherly duty to provide appropriate goods for his children. He apologetically said, “I guess that motivated me even more to find something to do.”
Women did not experience this acute guilt at not providing for their children. For instance, Grace, who had brought in half of her household’s annual income before she lost her job, was matter-of-fact about the material changes her job loss meant. She has started shopping at thrift stores to save money. She explained, “I did probably half my Christmas shopping for the kids at thrift stores. And the toys are just as good and appropriate and it’s just they’re gently used.” In fact, many of the unemployed women emphasize that job loss allowed them to spend the kind of quality time with their children that they had sorely missed. In Grace’s case, this took the form of her spending time during the summer vacations with her daughters taking them swimming, on picnics, and to zoos and museums.
Unemployment and Extended Family
A challenging aspect after losing a job is deciding how to inform extended family. Common wisdom suggests that telling people about job loss is important — after all, as career coaches advise, if people know you need a job, they might be able to help you find one. Yet, in families of unemployed men, there is often a keen sense of shame. These unemployed individuals and their spouses described worrying about being pitied by their siblings and parents.
Connie, whose husband Scott lost his job, explained that she “was embarrassed” and didn’t “want people feeling sorry for me.” Emily, whose husband Brian lost his job, similarly says that she had tried to keep his unemployment “a secret.” Her plans were thwarted when they went on a vacation with her family where “Brian blurted it out to everybody.” Emily said, “Telling everybody at once just brings a lot of attention right away.”
Despite these concerns, the participants in my study did eventually disclose news of the job loss to their extended families, especially to their parents. In fact, their own parents were crucial in helping unemployed people and their families navigate job loss. Although Connie and Scott had worried about not being able to provide expensive Christmas gifts for their children, they need not have. When I spoke with Connie after Christmas, she excitedly exclaimed that her daughter “got everything she wanted!” An expensive pair off Uggs had been a particular point of contention, but as Connie explained, her daughter “got the Uggs from my mother.”
The families of unemployed women did not recount trying to hide the unemployment in the same way. Women’s unemployment was not framed as a major problem that had to be urgently rectified. In fact, families often claimed that they could manage well without women’s income. And so, the idea of “telling” their extended families about women’s job loss was a mundane, non-event. These families also received considerable financial support from extended family — and this money was used to enable mothers to stay at home for an even longer period of time.
Take what happened to Julia. At our first interview, Julia had been job-searching and intended to get back into the labor force. When I interviewed her again many months later, she had changed her plans, explaining that, “my mother-in-law stayed at home with her boys and really, really wants me to stay at home with her grandson.” Julia’s mother-in-law inquired how much money Julia and her husband would need that would allow Julia to stay at home. “And so I told her how much I would need, and she went home and talked to her husband and said, ‘That’s fine.’” Julia was grateful to her mother-in-law for providing material resources that allowed her to spend more time with her son.
How Can Families and Society Better Help Unemployed People?
My research shows that layoffs affect the lives of men and women in heterosexual relationships differently, and often in ways that reinforce gender stereotypes and norms. To better help families deal with the emotional toll of layoffs, two shifts need to happen in how society frames job loss, and the provisions that governments provide for the unemployed. These shifts can also help individuals provide help to family members who have been laid off without reverting to rigid definitions of gender roles.
Decouple unemployment and stigma.
Even though layoffs are a fairly common experience in the U.S., unemployment remains stigmatized, especially for men. Men feel as though they are failing as providers in their familial role of husbands and fathers when they lose their jobs. Their wives feel it, too.
To help adderss this, we need to update our assumptions about unemployment to better align with the insecure and uncertain conditions of contemporary employment. This requires a cultural shift so that the unemployed are not reduced to being viewed as lazy and immoral. Social policies can play a role in this cultural shift, too; for example, generous unemployment benefits can better help recognize and account for the unstable conditions of employment today.
Shame and stigma are also acute for unemployed men because cultural expectations of masculinity remain traditional, with being an economic provider intertwined with men’s roles as husbands and fathers. In reality, women now provide a large share of household income, yet the cultural expectation that men ought to be the breadwinners remains. This expectation is so embedded that, in families when men earn far less than their spouses or are unemployed, the risk of divorce is higher. Decoupling expectations of what men bring to the family as husbands and fathers from their employment status is key when today’s job environment simply does not support these outdated models of family structure.
Decouple gender and the division of paid and unpaid work.
The focus on men’s job-searching was one example of how broader cultural expectations around gender roles percolate down to the level of the family. Directing men toward potential caregiving for their children, rather than an intense focus on job-searching, could bring some respite and may make men feel they have more to offer beyond money. This is an old and enduring lesson, captured in a study of the Great Depression by sociologist Mirra Komarovsky. She found that unemployed men who contributed to the household through caregiving work after they lost their jobs maintained a sense of providing for their families. This was in contrast to men who did not contribute to any household tasks and kept waiting for a new job to materialize. This latter group of men experienced deep humiliation and felt that their sense of self was utterly undermined.
The limited attention to women’s job-searching is the other side of the cultural expectations coin that ties men to breadwinning and women to caregiving. Ultimately, the assumption that women’s focus ought to be solely on caregiving also needs to change. Further, unemployed women need more support around job-searching, including simply having conversations around the topic. When we assume women are OK with stepping into a caregiver-only role, we might inadvertently shut down discussions about women’s career-related ambitions.
Social policies such as affordable and accessible childcare could also go a long way here. The absence of generous policies in the U.S. on this issue is undergirded by an implicit understanding that childcare ought to be provided by mothers themselves. This assumption does not match the realities of many families. It also further hems men into breadwinning roles and women into caregiving roles.
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Issues of self-worth — and what it meant to be a spouse or parent — become prominent after a job loss. But these concerns are not inevitable. With changes to cultural norms – and truly listening to the needs and fears of people who have lost their jobs — the adverse impact of people’s experiences can be buffered.
*All names are pseudonyms.