Varying unemployment experiences? : the economy and mental well-being

Abstract: From being an unemployment success story, Sweden was during the 1990s thrown into a European normality, with apparent high and persistent unemployment. This has made unemployment a central issue in the Swedish public debate as a social problem directly affecting hundreds of thousands of individuals. In the public debate there is however no consensus on what characterises the experience of unemployment. One perspective emphasises the role of employment for self-realisation. Unemployment here becomes a very destructive experience, due to the psychosocial value attached to employment. An alternative perspective instead views employment as a necessary evil that brings little satisfaction to those who participate in it. From this perspective unemployment mean very little to those struck by it outside the possible negative effects on income (which are minimised by the welfare state).The objective of this thesis has been to move beyond the postulated truths of what the experience of unemployment means. It uses an empirical approach in order to investigate the consequences of unemployment for mental well-being, and to develop an understanding of the reasons for this relationship.The following conclusions can be drawn from the five articles that make up the thesis. In line with previous international and Swedish research, the thesis shows that unemployment as compared to employment is in general a distressing experience. This does however not mean that we can draw the simple conclusion that unemployment represents misery and employment represents the absence of misery. The thesis finds the relationship to be more complex than so. There is a need to take into account more of the possible variations in status available both on and outside the labour market. Different exit routes from unemployment were found to have different consequences for the mental well-being of the unemployed individual. Further, the evidence in the thesis shows that there is variation in the impact of unemployment on mental well-being within the unemployment group. We should, thus, not talk about the experience of unemployment, but rather about varying unemployment experiences.The general effect of unemployment on mental well-being, and the variation in the unemployment experience, was in turn shown to be mainly dependent on two factors. Firstly on the psychosocial need for employment in a society where employment is the norm. Secondly, on the economic need for employment in a society where employment, as the thesis also shows, for many still is necessary for adequate economic resources.