All change or carry on as usual? How do spouses respond when their partner loses their job?

Losing a job or taking a cut in wages can pose a serious threat to the economic stability of a household, making couples re-evaluate the way in which paid and unpaid work is shared between them and adjust to their changed circumstances. New research by a team from ISER challenges some of the existing theories about how couples react when one of them loses their job or faces a cutback in paid hours of work.

The just-published research, Households’ responses to spousal job
loss: ‘all change’ or ‘carry on as usual’?
uses existing data and in-depth interviews with specially selected participants from the Understanding Society Innovation Panel to look at whether:

  • couples are pro-active or re-active when unemployment or underemployment is a likely prospect?
  • couples alter the way they operate by adopting short term measures simply to deal with their current situation or consider the longer term implications of particular strategies and what might happen in the future
  • in the short or long term, couples seek to regain their share of paid and unpaid
    labour once their labour market prospects improve

The researchers selected couples where one had undergone a change in job, working hours or employment status since Spring 2008 and started by looking at
how aware individuals were about the impending nature of this shock on the basis that warning signs about potential job loss would be helpful, allowing time for contingency plans such as job search or re-organising finances to cushion the financial blow when it happens.

However, the researchers found that participants did not always see, or chose not to see, these ‘shocks’ coming despite numerous outward indicators of potential job loss.

“…it was inevitable. They were going to sort of get rid of him. They were using him for a period as most companies do and then of course… they get their people…But it was a shock. I think he sort of got an inkling it was going to happen, but of course you go on and you think, ‘Oh, it might blow over,’
but you get a gut feeling….So I would say probably about four weeks, maybe a couple of months absolute, you know, before we knew. But even then, you know, we didn’t know. And when it did happen, we were absolutely gobsmacked.”

Lead researcher, Dr Karon Gush commented:

“This theme was a recurring one in the interviews, with a number of participants apparently ignoring the clues that they were about to suffer an employment shock or choosing to believe that they would not be the person

The team went on to look at whether it made a difference if the job loss was perceived as short or long-term. A number of participants described feeling ‘panicked’ into taking the first job that came along and how this was sometimes work that was not ideal either in terms of contracted hours or type.

For some, almost any work would do, whilst for others it was keeping ‘in the
game’ and returning to their chosen profession as soon as possible that was all-important in order to not lose ground and ‘fall behind’ in terms of skills and knowledge.

“If necessary, I’d have gone and worked in Tesco’s. That didn’t happen, and I was fortunate the way it turned out…it was the case of look at what was around and take the best thing even if it’s been a temporary sort of job, if you know what I mean.”

“I just felt, well, I’d rather be working. It doesn’t matter where I work, it doesn’t matter who I work for, as long as I was working..”

The researchers found little evidence of the so-called ‘added worker effect’, where the partner of the individual who has lost their job either looks for work or takes on more work to compensate for the household’s loss of income.

The ‘effect’ is a popular theory among economists of how couples respond to one of them losing their job, but the ISER researchers conclude this may not always be the best way to characterise how couples respond to employment shocks.

Instead, Professor Heather Laurie says that couples seemed to employ “income smoothing techniques” such as cutting household expenditure on everyday and/or big ticket items, relying more heavily on support from other family members and drawing on savings and investments.

“Unless a change in the share of paid and unpaid work facilitates the realisation of a long-term aim, couples seem to work very hard to retain the status quo in their division of labour and avoid making substantial household changes until absolutely necessary.”

She added:

“Couples display remarkable resilience in finding alternative coping strategies to absorb an employment or income shock. The use of additional paid spousal labour as a response to unemployment is one response amongst a set of alternatives and couples may prefer to exhaust all other alternatives before invoking major changes to the way labour is shared between them.”

The research was part of a wider project looking at the impact of recession on
labour market behaviour in Britain

Photo credit: zoetnet


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