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Hanging by a thread?

Job insecurity cuts to the core of identity and social stability – and can push people towards extremism

“Will I lose my job in the near future?” For most people this is an unpleasant scenario to ponder, and for many it is a real and pressing concern. Since the financial crisis, more than half of all jobs created in the European Union have been through temporary contracts.

This high level of job insecurity doesn’t just have an economic effect on people, making financial planning extremely difficult. Our research shows how the precarious nature of the job market has a huge impact on how people feel, too. In fact, job insecurity strikes at the core of who we perceive ourselves to be – our identity – and this can have much wider ramifications for society.

Psychologists rank job insecurity among the most prominent work place stressors. The worry of not knowing whether you will be laid off, whether you will be able to pay your bills, and whether you still have a future within an organisation, is, of course, very stressful, especially when it is out of your hands. Job insecurity implies a potentially adverse future, and one which you cannot control.

Job insecurity has health, as well as financial, effects.

Indeed the list of negative consequences of job insecurity is depressingly long; the more people worry about losing their jobs the lower their mental well-being, and the more physical health complaints they report. Effects can range from occasional sleeping problems to clinical depression.

For organisations, the effects of job insecurity are also pervasively negative. Contrary to popular belief, the worry of losing one’s job does not act as a motivator. Instead, it typically leads to poorer performance at work. And within communities or countries, widespread job insecurity is associated with political unrest, with insecure jobs cited as a cause of political extremism. Job insecurity, in short, seems to get the blame for many of individuals’, organisations’ and society’s ills.

Sense of self

So why exactly is job insecurity so bad? Jobs mean more to us than just providing a financial income alone. What we do for work is an important aspect of who we are. After all, most of us spend about a third of our lives working. When someone is introduced to a stranger, very often one of the first questions that pops up is “so, what do you do for a living?” Even in retirement homes, a popular pastime is to discuss previous work. Thus, our job is important to our sense of self, to who we feel we are.

So, it is not surprising that job insecurity threatens how we feel about ourselves – that is, our identity. In a study of British employees, we discovered that people who were afraid of losing their jobs often felt their identity as an employed person was diminished, even though they were still actually at work. Job insecurity – as common as it might be – was perceived as an alienating experience, excluding people from the status and community of “the employed”, and making them feel less normal.

France’s far-right Front National party has had rising support. EPA/Arnold Jerocki

In turn, this affected their well-being: people who felt a loss of identity as an employed person reported problems in concentrating and sleeping, and felt they were losing their confidence in themselves. Feeling excluded also affected people’s behaviour at work, performing the core parts of their jobs less effectively.

So while job insecurity threatens our immediate well-being – such as future income, relations with colleagues, the ability to finish an important project at work – it goes deeper than this and threatens important parts of who we are. And the way that it harms our perception of ourselves can have a pervasive effect on those who suffer from it, as they attempt to deal with their insecurity. This manifests itself in sometimes contradictory ways.

For example, people who feel threatened in their identity have been found to be more likely to turn against others (if that helps their own status), while at the same time identifying with others who experience a similar threat. Feeling “less normal” might make people more susceptible to messages that make them feel more included again – for example, the opportunity to become part of something greater, making their own, excluded group “great” again. For others, feeling more alienated makes them more empathetic – towards other, more excluded people, unemployed people, minorities. This explains how job insecurity pushes some people towards political extremes, both right and left.

This growing evidence of the harmful effects of job insecurity – on individual’s identity and hence well-being, as well as on company performance – shows it is time not only for organisations, but for politicians to wake up to the issue. Policies are needed to counter the growing trend towards temporary work and zero-hours contracts, with added protection required to ensure people do not feel excluded from society and pushed toward extremism.

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