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The hidden toll of underemployment

COMMENTARY | November 11, 2011

Part-time work and jobs below a person’s skill level may not be as bad as having no job at all but they are serious societal problems in their own right, as Mike Alberti of Remapping Debate reports.

By Mike Alberti

When policy-makers and pundits (and reporters) talk about the dismal state of the labor market, they generally refer to the unemployment rate, which, by any accounting, remains appallingly high. But focusing exclusively on unemployment has meant that another critical issue has been largely ignored: the enormous increase during the recession in the number of people who are employed but who are forced to work part-time or to hold jobs that are below their skill level. These workers can be broadly thought of as the “underemployed.”

In Europe and many other countries, underemployment is treated as a social problem. In the United States, that is far less true. And most of the limited attention that has been paid to the problem has focused on the economic consequences. Since the recession, however, researchers have begun to take more of an interest in the social and psychological effects of underemployment, and a small body of literature is now growing. In The hidden toll of unemployment, I sought to explore those social and psychological effects. They can be profoundly negative, and not just for the short-term.

Underemployment is associated with many of the same consequences that come with unemployment such as an increased risk of depression, higher stress, and lower self-esteem. Though different people will cope with underemployment differently, many who become underemployed may blame themselves for it. This can lead to deep-seated feelings of shame, which can quickly become debilitating. Several psychologists explained to me that one way in which people cope with feelings of shame is by taking it out on others, and in this way the psychological effects can quickly ripple outward into the family and community. Underemployment has been shown to strain domestic relationships, and can have a profound effect on children, especially if they perceive a loss of status.

Little research has been done on the longer-term effects of underemployment, but there are hints that the negative impact continues over time. In some cases, psychologists told me, underemployed people become so discouraged by the search for more fulfilling (and better-paying) employment that they give up and permanently adjust their expectations downward. And there is some evidence that shows that they can face a stigma from prospective employers, who may see them as lazy or uncommitted. These factors can lead to a vicious cycle from which it is very difficult to escape.

But despite these findings, the government is making little effort to assess the problem, much less to find policy solutions. The only data that track underemployment focus on a single class of the underemployed ? involuntary part-time workers ? of which there were nearly 9 million in October. This is undoubtedly a significant undercount, as it omits those workers who are employed full-time but who are employed below their skill-level — like the more than a third of new college graduates that some studies suggest are not landing jobs that require a college degree.

In truth, though, we don’t yet know the full extent of the problem. Nevertheless, this is a fruitful area for further inquiry as to policy implications. The underemployed are often ineligible for public and private benefits. What effect does this have on the lives of those workers? The limited programs that do exist to help people get back to work often serve to shuttle people into any job, even if it a drastic step backwards. How might these programs be modified to help workers find employment more suited to their abilities and needs? President Obama has proposed making the unemployed a protected class against hiring bias. Could this work for the underemployed? How have other countries sought to address the issue?

As Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, pointed out, underemployment may not represent as much as an emergency as unemployment, but it is still represents a major societal crisis. And the less we know about underemployment, the less we are able to do about it.

Click here for Mike Alberti’s full report on underemployment.

adjusting expectations
Posted by ACitizen
11/16/2011, 11:39 AM

This is the crux of what is going on now. Americans are being made to accept low wages in order for America to compete in the "free market" where the 1% is making it's money. It has been this way ever since NAFTA and continues to this day. This is why Unions are now only seven percent of the workforce and getting smaller. Get used to it, it's "the new normal" and is Government Sachs facilitated.

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