With unemployment at its highest rate in three decades, almost a million Australians are experiencing the anxiety of being out of work. Even more are underemployed, and more still holding on to jobs for now, not knowing if that will last.
If you feel secure in your job, you are lucky. Because the psychological fallout of job insecurity can last a lifetime.
Many studies have shown the association between employment and psychological and physical well-being. A meta-analysis of 104 empirical studies by behavioural researcher Frances McKee-Ryan and colleagues argues the evidence is “strongly supportive of a causal relationship” between unemployment and mental health.
The effect of job insecurity, however, has been less researched, even though such insecurity has long been an issue for many in contract-based, casual and gig economy jobs; and it will affect many more as the threat of artificial intelligence and automation looms.
Our large-scale study, tracking the experience of more than a thousand Australians over nearly a decade, suggests job insecurity over a prolonged period can actually change your personality. And that could make a significant difference to your life and well-being decades down the track.
How we tracked personality changes
Personality is often assumed to be stable and enduring. A growing body of research, however, shows how personalities evolve over time. For example, on average self-confidence, warmth, self-control and emotional stability tends to increase as we age, with the greatest change being between the age of 20 and 40.
Studies like ours are investigating how work experiences shape personality over time. Previous studies, for example, suggest more autonomy at work can increases a person’s ability to cope with new and unpredictable situations. A demanding and stressful job, on the other hand, can make someone more neurotic and less conscientious.
To explore the possible personality effects, we used data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey, a national survey that collects information from a large and representative sample of Australians each year. The survey tracks the same people as far as is possible, which enables researchers to look at how individual changes over time. Respondents are asked (among other things) how secure they feel their job is, as well as questions relating to personality traits.Shutterstock
We analysed nine years of data from 1,046 Australians working in a range of occupations and professions. Every four years (years 1, 5 and 9) participants completed a well-established personality measure, asking them to describe their characteristics against adjectives such as “talkative”, “moody”, “warm”, “orderly” and “creative”.
These adjectives reflect where people sit in relation to five key personality traits: neuroticism (or emotional stability), extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.
- ^ almost a million Australians (www.abs.gov.au)
- ^ Winding back JobKeeper and JobSeeker will push 740,000 Australians into poverty (theconversation.com)
- ^ 104 empirical studies (psycnet.apa.org)
- ^ large-scale study (psycnet.apa.org)
- ^ Hunger, lost income and increased anxiety: how coronavirus lockdowns put huge pressure on young people around the world (theconversation.com)
- ^ 20 and 40 (journals.sagepub.com)
- ^ autonomy at work (www.sciencedirect.com)
- ^ demanding and stressful job (www.sciencedirect.com)
- ^ Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey (melbourneinstitute.unimelb.edu.au)
- ^ a well-established personality measure (www.tandfonline.com)
- ^ perceive uncertainty in negative terms (journals.aom.org)
- ^ Struggling with the uncertainty of life under coronavirus? How Kierkegaard's philosophy can help (theconversation.com)
- ^ being proactive in managing your career (psycnet.apa.org)
- ^ colleagues, family and friends (journals.sagepub.com)
Authors: Lena Wang, Senior Lecturer in Management, RMIT University