We know that unemployment is self-perpetuating, due to reasons including stigma and skill loss. Now new research suggests a further component to this vicious circle: hostile people are more likely to be without work, but periods without work also seem to raise levels of hostility, at least in the short-term.
The research team, led by Christian Hakulinen, made use of a large Finnish longitudinal data set beginning in 1980 with the recruitment of children and adolescents. From this set, data was available on the employment status of 1465 participants at multiple time points, together with personality information related to hostility that participants completed in 1992, 2001, and 2007. This included items that tapped cynicism (e.g. through agreement with statements like 'Most people are honest chiefly through fear of being caught') and others focusing on paranoia and distrustful attitudes (e.g. via items like 'Others do not give me proper credit for my achievements'). Hostility is associated with distrust of others, using social support less effectively, and proneness to conflict. It is a plausible variable to focus on because it’s known to predict sickness leave, which is related to unemployment risk.
Hostility ratings in 2001 predicted unemployment status in 2007. The analysis controlled for educational background (including the parents' education, a good proxy for family socio-economic status). A similar effect was found for 1992 hostility and 2001 unemployment , but after controlling for education this relationship was no longer significant.
This suggests that socio-economic status may be a mediator variable, with more hostile children achieving worse educationally and through this being at higher unemployment risk.
The analysis also found an effect in the reverse direction by looking at the 2001 data. Here, holding constant the likelihood an individual was hostile in the past - by controlling for 1992 hostility scores – the researchers found that a given person was more likely to be more hostile if they had some period of unemployment that year. Other analyses suggested unemployment may also influence hostility in the future, but controlling for education again saw these effects rendered non-significant. So the only thing we can say with some confidence is that unemployment appears to affect hostility in the short-term.
Hostile individuals tend to be less active in job searches, and their suspicion and disinclination to approach others leaves them open to becoming isolated within the workplace, making higher unemployment understandable. This research draws attention to a second dynamic, where frustration from joblessness hardens exteriors and affects personality, at least in the short term. Such a vicious circle is one that we - through policy, organisational and individual choices - should try to prevent. It's important to note the silver lining of the effect of employment status: ignoring previous hostility levels, having a steady recent employment history is associated with lower hostility. So if there is a vicious circle, it's potentially one that can be broken.
Paul, K. I., & Moser, K. (2009). Unemployment impairs mental health: Meta-analyses. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 74(3), 264–282.