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The Diverse Worlds of Unemployed Adults

Interview with Mark Havitz, Peter Morden, Diane Samdahl

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Why are people without jobs deserving of leisure services and why should agencies attempt to serve this group of people? Do we want to encourage people to stay unemployed?

This study corroborated earlier research suggesting that job loss can adversely affect people’s self-esteem, life satisfaction, daily moods, relationships with friends and family, levels of physical activity, opportunity to travel, and so forth. These issues go above and beyond the obvious loss of income, affects on pension plans, children’s education funds, and the like. Although there were some people for whom unemployment also brought positive benefits such as more free time and less time pressure, there was very little evidence in this sample that respondents were “deadbeats” looking for ways to beat the system. We did find evidence that, for many people, recreation and leisure activity can potentially reduce or minimize negative impacts of unemployment. This is because such contexts provide opportunities for physical activity, for positively framed social interaction, for volunteering, and generally improving self-worth. Leisure is clearly not a panacea that can replace benefits of paid employment, but it is an important quality of life component.

Isn’t unemployment already a leisure experience for most people? After all, it is a break from day-to-day drudgery of going to work?

No. One of our most unexpected findings was that the unemployed adults in our study experienced very little leisure in their lives. Several studies have suggested that employed adults report that nearly 50% of daily life experiences are leisure, whereas our unemployed respondents reported that only about 20% of daily life experiences were leisure. This gap likely occurs for many reasons including lack of money, disrupted social networks, increased levels of conflict with family members, and feelings of guilt and lack of entitlement in leisure contexts. As expected, we did find that, for most people, mood states were significantly elevated in leisure contexts as opposed to non-leisure settings.

Lack of money is the obvious main problem. Can’t we solve the problem simply by offering recreation programs for free?

No. First, for a substantial portion of our respondents (say 20 or 30 percent), income woes were minimal because they had alternative sources of income and support (working partners or parents being the most common) or because their lifestyles were relatively simple. Monetary costs were an issue for the majority of respondents, but our data suggest that non-monetary issues were more problematic. For example, lack of time (because of other obligations such as family and job search) was still more commonly cited as a constraint to leisure participation than was money by the majority of respondents. Stigma was also an important issue as many respondents felt that they didn’t deserve leisure in their present circumstances or they felt that others would judge them negatively in leisure contexts because they were unemployed.

At least scheduling programs should be easy for this group. We can just provide programs for them during the mid-morning hours when most people are at work or school and recreation facilities are empty.

On the surface this seems like a good idea but it’s not that simple. Many unemployed adults regularly spend their early morning hours searching for work, some are normally still asleep, some don’t want organized recreation in the morning but would be willing to participate at other times such as when friends and family are available to participate with them, and still others don’t want to participate in organized recreation regardless of the time of day. Indeed there was one subgroup in our study who actually experienced lower mood states in leisure contexts than they did in non-leisure contexts!