According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in the United States is 7.4 percent for people between ages 20 and 24, and 4.6 percent for those between 25 and 34. And of course, that’s not including many more people who are underemployed.
So what does being unemployed in young adulthood mean in terms of mental health? Several studies have looked into that question.
One recently published 10-year study tracked people from age 15 to 25, focusing on their employment status and mental health. The study divided people into three categories: those who were unemployed, those who were employed but dissatisfied with their jobs, and those who had jobs they were satisfied with.
As you might expect, when people transitioned smoothly from school to satisfactory jobs, their mental health got a boost.
Perhaps more surprising, though, is what happened when people transitioned from school to unemployment or to unsatisfactory employment. These people showed no change in psychological well-being one way or the other, at least as far as the researchers could tell. In other words, not getting jobs they liked didn’t precipitate a decline in mental health for these people – they just missed out on the mental health bonus of getting jobs they were happy with.
An earlier study by the same researchers turned up similar findings. Once again, those who ended up with jobs they were satisfied with saw their mental health improve while the less lucky job hunters saw their mental health remain more or less flat on average.
This study also found an interesting gender difference: for men, being unemployed was worse for their mental health than having a job they weren’t satisfied with, but for women, it appeared that having a job they didn’t like was psychologically worse than having no job at all.
Still, just because being unemployed doesn’t appear to lead to an immediate worsening of mental health, that’s not to say being unemployed is psychologically healthy. A 2002 study found that young people who were unemployed after leaving school had more mental health problems and higher rates of smoking when researchers followed up 14 years later.
Although more research is necessary to figure out the cause-and-effect here, the authors of the study said the findings should provide some caution for us as a society that “youth unemployment constitutes a significant public health problem, which to a certain extent remains in adult age.”
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