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Job Insecurity: It’s the Disease of the 21st Century, and It’s Killing Us

A massive, Xanax-fueled public health crisis driven by chronic employment worry is headed our way.

(Photo: Mark Sebastian / Flickr)

Remember Dilbert, the mid-level, white-collar Cubicle Guy of the ’90s who could never seem to get ahead? In the 21st century, his position looks almost enviable.

He has been replaced by Waiting-For-the-Other-Shoe-to-Drop Man.

Across America, freaked-out employees are coping with sweat-drenched nights and heart-pounding days. They’re reaching for the Xanax and piling on the work of two or three people. They’re running the risk of short-term collapse and long-term disease.

The hell created by three grinding years of 8 percent-plus unemployment brings us plenty of stories of what people suffer when they lose their jobs. But what about the untold millions who live in chronic fear that tomorrow’s paycheck will be their last?

Research shows that the purgatory of job insecurity may be even worse for you than unemployment. And it’s turning the American Dream into a sleepwalking nightmare. From young temporary workers to middle-aged career veterans, Americans are being pushed to their physical and psychological limits in what has the makings of a major national public health crisis.

The New Insecurity

We’re supposed to be a nation of cockeyed optimists. But many feel like haunted wanderers in a dark forest, knowing that the slightest turn of the foot could fell us. Just ask Alan L, a 32-year-old from Queens, New York.

The path ahead should have been bright for Alan. After several years as a music industry publicist, he took the ubiquitous advice of the mid-noughts and went to back to school for a bachelor’s degree. Yearning to do something more meaningful, Alan imagined teaching or perhaps working for a non-profit, a job that would put his double major in history and political science to good use.

Today he wakes up in the middle of the night, gripped by fear. He checks his email compulsively, and suffers from the strange sensation that he is invisible, that his body is floating in space.

Alan has a job. But not in a school or a non-profit. In fact, he can’t even score work as a publicist, or even a position at a local bookshop or music store. Since getting his degree in 2011, Alan has bounced from one temporary assignment to the next, always aware the next quarterly budget could send him packing. The specter of $40,000 in student debt is his constant companion.

When Alan decided to go the college route, his parents and friends cheered. Little did they know that a train wreck was coming. During his second week as a full-time college student, the economy crashed. Still, Alan worked hard. He made the Dean’s List. He won awards. “I wasn’t some goofball, flaky student,” he says.

Now he has a constant sense of failure.

The temporary office jobs he lands offer no real path to full-time employment. Tied to budget decisions, they frequently vanish with little or no warning. “You begin to hear rumors that your job is going to be cut,” Alan says. “People get passive-aggressive. It’s stressful.”

During what would be his lunch break, Alan runs a mini-command center on his laptop, scanning job sites and sending out hundreds of resumes. He’ll have three or four browsers open at one time, constantly hitting the refresh button on jobs listings to see if any new posts come up. Trying to look for a job while trying to keep a job is a frantic enterprise.

Alan has started to experience the weird uncanniness of the New Insecurity. He feels like someone on the outside of society, looking in:

“I’m not unemployed, so I’m not part of the TV narrative. I’m off the grid. The advice I hear sounds like it was meant for someone else. ‘Live cheaply! Go door-to-door to find a job.’ But I’m already in minimal, survival mode. And as for going door-to-door in mid-town Manhattan? The security guards won’t even let me in. My parents keep saying, ‘You shouldn’t be on your laptop all day.’ But job searches are mostly done online now—that’s the reality.”

Alan finds that the traditional ideas about finding, and keeping, a job are bankrupt. He’s having panic attacks. Alan is not alone.

Xanax Nation

The 21st century started not with a bang, but with a bust. Two, in fact. First, the Internet collapse and then, after a brief and illusory reprieve in which the employment rate never returned to its previous level, the financial crash. The economy remains stubbornly stuck in second gear.

Job insecurity is nothing new for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Since the ’70s and ’80s, a shifting labor market and anti-worker policies have been fraying the ties between employers and employees, fueling the perception that a job is a temporary affair. Globalization, outsourcing, contracting, downsizing, and recession have conspired to make confidence in a stable, long-term job a privilege that few can enjoy.

But the global recession has blown the numbers experiencing persistent job insecurity through the roof. In the U.S., the stress of three years of unemployment over 8 percent – the longest stretch at that level since the Great Depression – has rocketed our anxieties to new heights, even among traditionally secure workers. In Europe, where employees have enjoyed more protections, workers are feeling increasingly stressed, often trapped in low-wage and temporary employment with few benefits. Even in Germany, this trend of part-time “mini-jobs” is wiping away the old image of Europe as a worker-friendly land of happy, full-time employment.

Compared to other western nations, Americans have few buffers when things go badly. New Deal policies meant to protect us from brutal economic downturns have been systematically shredded. At a time of high unemployment and union disintegration, employers have less incentive to provide health care and fair contracts. The vulture capitalism of profiteering firms like Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, which make a quick buck by bankrupting companies and laying off employees, has created a global image of America as a place where working people are so many carcasses to be picked over by financiers. Better-educated workers are still more secure than others, but a diploma is no longer the magic ticket for holding on to a job. That’s why the U.S. graduates of 2012 are more concerned with job security than any other aspect of employment, including salary and benefits, one study found.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Our capitalist endeavor was supposed to make us safe from the vagaries of weather conditions and arbitrary events that harassed our ancestors. But somehow we’ve ended up more worried than ever.

Anxiety disorders now plague 18 percent of the U.S. adult population –- a whopping 40 million people. Only half that number is affected by mood disorders. The drug alprazolam — familiar by its brand name, Xanax — was prescribed 46.3 million times in 2010, making it that year’s bestselling psychiatric drug. Prozac, the happiness-and-optimism pill, has been pushed aside by a medication meant to just help you get through the day without collapsing in a puddle of anxiety.

It’s easy to see the appeal of popping a Xanax. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association paints a picture of workers on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

  • Sixty-two percent say work has a significant impact on their stress levels.
  • Almost 50 percent indicate their stress levels have increased between 2007 and 2008.
  • Forty-five percent of workers say job insecurity has a significant impact on stress levels.

Today even bankers are doing time in the prison of job insecurity. Recent layoffs sent a shudder down the gold-plated halls of Goldman Sachs, which has slashed 8.5 percent of its workforce over the last year over worries about the European debt crisis and other negative indicators.

What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us

Humans are pretty good at rolling with short bursts of pressure, but chronic uncertainty throws us for a loop. Anticipating a major stressful event can be worse than the actual occurrence itself, research shows.

When we fear the hatchet will fall, when the future is a fog, when we’re paralyzed by powerlessness, we start to flip out. We pile on more work than we can handle. We don’t take sick days when we need them. We start fueling up on coffee and cigarettes, and dropping the things that are good for us, like leisure activities and trips to the gym. Under chronic stress, our immune systems start to buckle from “overresponsivity.”

Authors of a recent study in Michigan found that insecure workers were significantly more likely to meet criteria for major or minor depression and to report a recent anxiety attack, even after taking into consideration factors like race, education, poorer prior health, and higher likelihood of recent unemployment. Conclusion: Many of those who have managed to hang onto their jobs during the Great Recession are getting mentally and physically wrecked – often more so than those who have lost their jobs.

The study found that chronic job insecurity was a stronger predictor of poor health than either smoking or hypertension. Months, even years, are shaved off of life expectancy.

Suicide rates are known to increase during economic downturns, and middle-age workers are especially vulnerable. Last year, suicide rates were at an all-time high in Connecticut, fueled by a sharp increase in rates among middle-age men. Middle-aged workers may still have plenty to offer, but employers often consider them used goods. In an economy with sky-high youth joblessness, employers know that there are young, inexperienced people that can be paid little and exploited at will. The jobs of older workers may be “restructured,” the pace sped up, the pay reduced.

Why don’t the media spend more time investigating job insecurity? Maybe we avoid it because it hits too close to home. A newsletter called “Revolving Door” arrives in my in-box with nail-biting frequency to tell me about the comings and goings in the media industry. It’s cheering to see somebody moving up, but more often the news centers on a venture failing, an editorial team let go, a rumor of impending cuts. In the Great Media Meltdown of 2008, I lost half of my freelance gigs in the course of a week. The panic in New York publishing circles was widespread, leading me to start a Web site called Recessionwire with two laid-off editors. I was never without some form of job, but I worked at a maniacal pace to keep myself from thinking about my depleted savings and uncertain prospects.

Stacey Warde, a 53-year-old magazine journalist, can relate. He had nearly 30 years in the news and publishing business under his belt when the economy crashed and he joined the tens of thousands of journalists who were displaced. He turned to farm labor as one of the last employment options that remains strong during downturns.

“In publishing, we were always scrapping and scratching,” says Warde. “But it was nothing like what happened leading up to and during the financial crisis.” Burdened by falling ad revenues and rising printing costs, his magazine folded soon after the crash. “Before, I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I could pay my rent. That’s all changed.”

Warde took a job as a blueberry grower for neighbors who own a small farm. It’s hard work, but he has enjoyed many of the challenges. Uncertainty is his new reality. “There are a lot of things that could end my job,” Warde says. “Bad weather, conflicts with the landlord over water. You just don’t know.”

Warde also has to contend with health worries. The health insurance he gets now through the VA, to which he is entitled because his current income renders him officially “indigent,” is fraught with a bureaucracy that keeps him from getting the care he needs. “I’ve had two melanomas removed in the past, but I haven’t seen a dermatologist for four years. I have rashes on my skin and I constantly worry.”

He also worries about his daughter, a medical student who is working her way through school. “She’s a good sport, but it feels awful that I can’t help her more.”

If Warde loses his current job, the local economy of San Luis Obispo County, Calif. doesn’t have much to offer. The more secure government jobs have been eliminated. “There’s a university, and a prison, that’s about it,” he says. He tries to stay optimistic. “I don’t want to sit here and feel sorry for myself. I focus on networking, on doing what I can today. I’m lucky to have supportive friends.”

When you don’t know whether your job will be around next year, or even next week, how do you plan for the future? What happens to dreams like buying a home? Saving for college? Retirement? In the face of job insecurity, thoughts of any of these things bring instant panic instead of hopeful planning.

Unlike losing a job, the fear of losing the job you have is not a discrete, socially visible event. Your course of action isn’t clear because you don’t know whether or how the job loss will occur. Things like unemployment insurance weren’t meant for your situation. There’s no intervention mechanism. You may become paranoid at work – and for good reason. Some managers have been known to try to get employees to quit so that they don’t have to pay for unemployment insurance. The collegial feeling among workers can curdle into cut-throat competition.

There’s no question that job insecurity is eroding our quality of life. And its prolonged effects can lead to coronary heart disease and even cancer.

The apologists for unbridled capitalism tell us that employers need maximum flexibility to hire and fire so that wealth can be created for all. In the face of ever-increasing income inequality, that line doesn’t play. And the public health costs of the New Insecurity — which will fall on everyone — are not factored into the old equation.

Most Americans are prepared to work hard for a living, but is premature death our only reward? The worst effects of pervasive job insecurity—on health, family, society—take time to incubate. Some of the signs are just now becoming visible. If this constant assault on our well-being goes on much longer, its effects may linger for decades. We’re on a dangerous path — and changing it should be a national priority.

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