The hidden toll of underemployment

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

“Imagine going from a situation where you had gained some status and control over your day-to-day life, and then moving into a retail job with a boss with less education than you,” Pedulla said. “That person might feel like he had lost control over his life.” The theme of loss of control is one that numerous experts cited repeatedly.


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Pedulla said that the result is often that underemployed workers internalize a sense of shame, and begin to blame themselves for their situation. Psychologists have long recognized that shame is a very powerful emotion, and that people who feel a strong sense of shame tend to cope with it in different ways. (See bottom box on the nature and power of shame.)

The ex-accountant working retail, Maynard said, “might start blaming himself for it. He might wonder, what’s wrong with me that I’m here?”

That sense of shame intensify if the individual has been forced to take a pay cut, Maynard said. Underemployed workers will often feel a greater financial strain, which can be exacerbated because their new jobs may not provide the same levels of health or retirement benefits as their old jobs, while at the same time making them ineligible for government assistance programs.

Pedulla said that, for men, the implications of becoming underemployed and earning less money can have profound effects on their perception of their masculinity, especially if they find themselves struggling to provide for their families.

“The breadwinner model is still very present,” he said. Men who feel that their masculinity is being threatened are more likely to lash out at their families. There is evidence that underemployment can cause marital strain, Pedulla said, and that when older children perceive that there has been a reduction in income or status, they may “inherit” the sense of shame.

“Kids may feel like they can no longer have the newest clothes, or that they can’t do certain activities with their friends because their family can’t afford it anymore,” he said.


Social isolation

One of the strongest effects of the shame and lowered self-esteem that can result from underemployment is that the worker may become socially isolated — in the workplace and outside of it — and that the isolation can, in turn, reinforce those feelings because the worker is not receiving social support, experts said.

“Your social interactions might change,” Pedulla said. “If you were laid off from a job where you had friends, you might feel less inclined to see your former co-workers because you might fear that they would look down on you.”

Some research has found that workers who have been laid off and found new jobs that are unsatisfactory are less likely to engage in social activities. In 1988, Katherine Newman, a sociologist and the current dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, wrote an influential book called Falling from Grace: Downward Mobility in the Age of Affluence, in which she interviewed hundreds of people who had, for various reasons, fallen out of the middle class.

Several people reported that the social consequences of underemployment can be particularly challenging.

“If your old friends are going out for drinks or going to the theater or playing golf or doing other things that you can no longer afford to do, then that can be a very isolating experience,” she said.

Berrin Erdogan, an associate professor of management at Portland State University, said that underemployed people might find themselves isolated within the workplace as well. “You would probably feel like a misfit, especially is you are surrounded by people who are less educated than you,” she said.  

She used the example of a young worker who graduated from college but could not find a job in her field, and had to start working at a coffee house. “After work, [your co-workers] might go out or spend time together on the weekends, but you might be less inclined to go because you feel like you don’t fit in,” she said. “At the same time, there’s a great chance that your co-workers might feel intimidated by you, and won’t want to invest in a relationship with you.”

The power of shame

Psychologists have long recognized the debilitating power of feelings of shame, and how those feelings are closely linked to other mental health issues, like depression and low self-esteem.

Shame and guilt are often used interchangeably, but according to June Tangney, a professor of clinical psychology at George Mason University, the two emotions are very distinct.

“Guilt is when you feel bad about a behavior, but shame is when you feel bad about yourself, when instead of saying, ‘I did a bad thing,’ you say, ‘I’m a bad person,’” she said. “Guilt is a negative emotion, but it’s nothing like shame.”

Tangney said that feelings of shame can often emerge from entering a circumstance, like underemployment, in which people feel that they are not meeting their own expectations or the expectations of others’.

“It is the sense of being humiliated and demeaned and empty and worthless at the core,” she said. “There is often a sense of shrinking, of being small, of wanting to sink into the floor, of being powerless, and also of feeling exposed, that other people are sort of looking at you and evaluating you.”

According to Tangney, proneness to shame is associated with higher incidence of depression and alcohol and drug abuse, and it can often manifest itself as anger. “There’s a close link between feeling like you’re a horrible person and blaming other people, which in extreme cases can lead to outbursts of aggression. It is generally not good for relationships, either domestic relationships or friendships or workplace relationships.”

According to Ronda Dearing, a research psychologist at the University of Buffalo who has also studied shame, it is an extremely difficult feeling to overcome. “A common response to guilt is try to do something proactive about it,” she said. “But shame can be completely immobilizing. When you feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with you as a person, that you are somehow rotten at the core, it’s very hard to move forward from there. You just get stuck, thinking ‘I am a horrible person. I’m despicable,’ [and, perhaps] ‘I deserve this.’”

Both experts emphasized that feeling of shame exist along a spectrum, and may affect people differently. “There are gradations,” Tangney said. “Some people experience shame that is overwhelming and debilitating. Other people go through their days feeling little micro-experiences of shame, just short encounters that make them feel shame for a moment. Even those can quickly eat away at their sense of being good, functioning people.”

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