LPM Staff

The curse of status anxiety

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The stories and statistics of unemployment in the U.S. dominate the airwaves and the Internet. Negative Nellies and Donald Downers tell us every day how bad it is out there: Unemployment is holding steady, more businesses are closing, people are losing their homes to foreclosure, and we won’t see the end of the recession anytime soon, blah, blah, and more blah.

We can probably agree that times are tough; we just have to buckle down and get through this. We will survive – at least it’s a recession, not a depression. Even so, it doesn’t make the current economic crisis any less deprimente. More and more people have discontinued their search for work and have dropped out of the labor force. The jobless are giving up and becoming “discouraged workers,” defined by the U.S. Labor of Bureau Statistics as “those persons not in the labor force who want and are available for work, and who have looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months,” but stopped looking for work the month before the survey.

Joblessness “has wreaked financial and emotional havoc” on many unemployed adults according to a recent poll by the New York Times/CBS News. Nearly half of those polled expressed shame and embarrassment for having to borrow money or for just being out of work, especially men. Many have experienced insomnia and increased conflicts and arguments with family and friends. Anxiety and depression were also experienced among those polled. And almost 50 percent of the adults surveyed felt “in danger” of falling out of their social class.

Fear of falling out of a certain social class could be partly chalked up to status anxiety, defined by modern philosopher and essayist Alain de Botton in his book of the same name as the concern about being judged by our successes or failures. Botton says of status anxiety that “if our position on the ladder is a matter of such concern, it is because our self-conception is so dependent upon what others make of us.” And for many, career is so closely tied to personal identity or status, that getting layed off or having to change careers midstream can bring on feelings of failure and other dire emotional straits, especially if months go by without finding work.

You are not your job

For many people, the longer they are unemployed, the more discouraged they get, the more disappointed they are, and the more dismal their outlook becomes. They lose not only their motivation but their sense of self.

Some, on the other hand, keep on keeping on, like Phoenix resident Jerry Herrera, who lost his job last summer when the business he was working for was bought out by a larger company. He’s been interviewing for jobs ever since. In his line of work, Herrera figured the years of experience listed on his résumé, including supervisory positions, would speak for his qualifications. At first Herrera was okay with the rejections, chalking them up to the current state of affairs. As the rejections piled up, he started to get frustrated, and the more frustrated he got, the angrier he became. “What am I doing wrong? What’s missing from my résumé?” he kept asking himself. He finally asked an interviewer, who told him that since Herrera didn’t have a college degree, less-experienced candidates with diplomas were more desirable.

Herrera has run the gamut of emotions in the last eight months, to the point of feeling like a failure to his wife and sons.

“The emotions associated with job loss or unemployment are … quite negative,” says Dr. Felipe González Castro, professor of clinical psychology at ASU. Emotions can run from anger, anxiety, and depression to “a loss of personal agency; that is, the inability to take a leadership role in getting things done,” says Castro. People may get angry when they’ve unfairly lost a job or economic “forces” prolong their unemployment. Anxiety is a typical emotional response to not knowing when that next job will surface, and depression can be the culmination of feeling loss of control, demoralized and hopeless, especially after months of searching for work to no avail.

Among Latinos, unemployment can imply an inability to live up to their role as active provider for the household, according to Castro. “I’m supposed to be the man of the house,” says Herrera, whose wife Lupita doesn’t necessarily see it that way; she’s encouraged Herrera to “not let it get to him.” At the age of 40, he’s going back to school to take classes in criminal justice, veering his career 180 degrees. Now Lupita’s working full time, switching roles with Herrera as the active provider for their family. It was their intention when they first married that Herrera would work while Lupita went to school, then they would trade places; they didn’t expect it to be forced on them by economic need.

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