Around 2.7 million people were made redundant in the UK during the ‘Great Recession’. Dr James Laurence examines the legacy of distrust created by those redundancies.
The impact of the recession is the dominant back-drop to the General Election campaign. Politicians from all parties explain their approach to the continuing fiscal deficit. Yet there is another legacy of the recession that has not been discussed – and probably will not be. How do those who lost their jobs get on with their lives?
For some, the traumatic experiences they went through during the recession may have scarred their willingness to trust others for years to come. Our research found that people who have been laid-off become less willing to trust others for at least a decade after they experienced redundancy. Lay-offs can damage peoples’ trust to such an extent that even after finding new work this distrust persists. Involuntary job loss can leave a deep and lasting scar of distrust about the certainties of life.
Crucially, people don’t just become more suspicious of employers or management, which would be understandable. Experience of redundancy appears to spill over into a growing cynicism towards the world in general, damaging what is known as ‘generalised trust’.
Being able to trust the world around you is important to one’s well-being, including psychological health, life satisfaction and happiness. However, communities and societies with higher trust also tend to be more socially cohesive, less corrupt, have higher support for welfare programmes, be more civically and politically engaged, as well as exhibiting more efficient democratic governance.
Given the large-scale job losses of the recent recession – 2.7 million people were made redundant – these experiences could lead to a worrying level of long-term distrust among the British public, risking a detrimental effect on the fabric of society. However, while claims of an economic recovery are in full swing, any discussion of the long-term social fall-out of the recession are absent from the debate.
Back in 2009, while the world was focused on the loss of jobs and GDP output, we were watching levels of helping behaviours fall in the same way. Volunteering through organisations was sliding to its lowest levels since 2000, while the amount of informal volunteering – that’s the kind of help given on a day-to-day basis amongst friends and neighbours – was crashing at rates normally seen over generations.
At the time, however, debate was largely focused on the economic costs of the recession. What our ‘Hard Times’ project set out to do was to try and count its social costs. It will come as no surprise to anyone who felt the full force of the crash that the picture was bleak. However, even more worrying was the evidence of the long-term consequences of experiencing economic hardship, which persisted long after the hardship itself had abated.
We followed a sample of adults from the National Child Development Survey for 18 years of their lives: from 1991 – when they were 33 – up until 2008 – when they turned 50. This data holds their full employment histories, including whether they had lost a job and, crucially, the reason why. With measures of respondents’ trust both before and after being laid-off, we could take a pre-test/post-test approach and so examine whether experiencing lay-offs led to changes in trust.
We observed that individuals who had been made redundant over the period were 5% less likely to trust in others when surveyed again at age 50. (We took into account a host of controls, such as education, social class and type of work.) This distrust rose to nearly 9% amongst people scoring highly on an index of ‘work centrality’ (that is people for whom work is more central to their identity, their sense of self and self-worth).
Just how long did this distrust last? We split our adults into three groups: those who experienced being laid-off between the ages of 33 to 41 (but had no experience of redundancy between the ages of 41 to 50); those laid-off between 41 to 50 (but not 33 to 41); and those who were laid-off during both periods.
Startlingly, we found that those who had been laid-off only between the ages of 33 and 41 were just as likely to distrust as individuals from the other laid-off groups. In other words, at least nine years after they were made redundant we could still see the effect of being laid-off on their generalized trust. This held even after accounting for whether they had been in work or not during that nine year period.
Some people will not be surprised by these findings. The pernicious effects of involuntary job loss on health, physiological well-being and family life have been extensively documented. But what we now see is that these experiences can even spill over into the wider social sphere, creating a caustic effect on the social fabric of society as a whole.
It is surprising that these dire long-term impacts of redundancy on wider society are not recognised as a mainstream public policy concern. This is not just a story about recessions. Even in the midst of this economic recovery, stories of mass lay-offs emerge. It is a question of how we approach and address the extremities of the current system.
Until this issue gets on the table, and is added into both the short and long-term calculations on the costs of our economic organisation, society will continue paying for this social deficit long after the budget deficit has ceased to dominate the political debate.