Sociology as a Strategy of Support for Long-Term
#Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016
Abstract In recent years workers in the United States have become increasingly
vulnerable to spells of long-term unemployment, which are often accompanied by
self-devaluation and the internalization of stigma. The existing literature consistently
finds that dominant self-help career support institutions activate individualistic cultural
narratives that obscure the shared and structural determinants of career challenges and
often intensify the self-stigmatization and emotional toll of long-term unemployment.
This paper examines an alternative approach to support based on sociologically-
informed discourses and practices. Drawing on in-depth interviews of long-term
unemployed white-collar workers who received such support we explore whether and
how sociologically-informed support practices can reduce self-stigmatization and help
workers confront the challenges posed by long-term unemployment. We show that self-
stigmatization is not an inevitable outcome of unemployment in the American cultural
context, and that the application of a sociologically-informed approach to support can
activate narratives focused on the shared and structural roots of unemployment. The
activation of such narratives counteracts the debilitating internalization of stigma and
generates what we call a Bre-valuation^of the self. Beyond long-term unemploy-
ment, the findings in this paper suggest broader benefits to American workers
from institutions that foster a sociological imagination for contextualizing
Keywords Unemployment .In-depth interviews .Self-help .Self-stigmatization .
Individualism .Applied sociology
Department of Sociology, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 528 Thompson Hall, Amherst,
MA 01002, USA
Department of Sociology MS-71, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA 02454, USA
Six years after the official end of the Great Recession long-term unemployment in the
U.S. remains at levels unseen in at least seven decades (Van Horn et al. 2014). In
addition to financial devastation, a well-established literature shows that long-term
unemployment poses one of the most difficult contemporary challenges to worker
health and wellbeing (e.g., Paul and Moser 2009,Strully2009; Sullivan and von
Wachte r 2009). A related line of studies reveals that a key mechanism undermining
wellbeing is self-devaluation and the internalization of stigma with many long-term
unemployed workers feeling shame and fearing that Bsomething is wrong^with them
(Brand 2015;Lassusetal.2015; Newman 1999;Chen2015). Prior research also shows
that currently dominant self-help approaches to support tend to intensify this self-
stigmatization among long-term unemployed workers by framing career challenges
as largely within the control of the job seeker and thus activating individualistic
understandings of labor market outcomes (Sharone 2013, Smith 2001). This paper
examines whether an alternative approach to support based on sociologically-informed
discourses and practices may help diminish self-stigmatization among long-term un-
employed workers by activating narratives focused on the shared and structural roots of
One important determinant of the viability of sociologically-informed support
(which for brevity we refer to as Bsoc-informed support^) depends on the relationship
between currently prevailing self-help support and the broader American culture of
individualism. If self-help’s emphasis on the role of individuals simply mirrors a
ubiquitous and powerful broader culture of individualism (Newman 1999)thenitis
unlikely that a local effort to utilize sociologically-informed support practices could
counter self-stigmatization unless accompanied by broad and fundamental cultural
change. Existing research, however, suggests that American culture is multifaceted,
containing a mixture of individualistic, mutualistic, and structural narratives, and that
concrete institutions play a critical role in activating certain cultural narratives to frame
subjective understandings of outcomes (e.g., Swidler 2001;Bellahetal.1985). This
literature challenges the idea that an all-powerful culture of individualism renders self-
stigmatization inevitable and thus suggests the possibility of de-stigmatization strate-
gies rooted in developing alternative institutions that activate mutualistic and structural
narratives. Guided by this literature, and a recent line of studies focusing on social
resilience (Hall and Lamont 2013), this paper explores the mechanisms by which
soc-informed support may reduce job seekers’self-stigmatization by fostering the
recognition of the shared nature of the long-term unemployment experience, and
the underlying role of social and economic institutions
Unemployment, Internalized Stigma and Support Institutions
Research showing the stigma of unemployment in the United States traces back to the
Great Depression (e.g., Bakke 1933), and the persistence of this stigma in our present
era is suggested, among other findings, by audit studies that reveal employers’dis-
criminatory bias against hiring unemployed workers (Kroft et al. 2013; Ghayad 2013;
Ho et al. 2011). In addition to erecting a barrier to re-employment, a line of studies
shows the stigma of unemployment is often internalized by job seekers who report
feeling shame or that something is wrong with them, and blaming themselves for their
continued unemployment (Newman 1999; Sharone 2013; Zukin et al. 2011; Chen
2015,Smith2001;Cottle2001;Uchitelle2006). This research also shows that inter-
nalized stigma and self-blame are among the most difficult aspects of unemployment.
For example, Katherine Newman’s(1999)in-depthinterviewswithunemployedwhite-
collar workers show that self-blame is often at the center of the unemployment
experience with unemployed workers acting as their own Binquisitors^and Bdelving
deeper and deeper for the character defects or other failings that led to their demise^
(1999:64). Other studies describe long-term unemployed job seekers as feeling as
though they are Bguilty of grievous offenses^(Cottle 2001,p.229)orfearingthatthey
are Bflawed^(Sharone 2013).
The internalization of stigma has several important implications. First, once job
seekers internalize the stigma of unemployment it often becomes emotionally difficult
to continue to search, leading workers to drop out of the labor force (Kanfer et al 2001;
Kaufman 1982; Sharone 2013). In addition, a long line of studies associates long-term
unemployment with negative physical and mental health outcomes, and one mecha-
nism linking long-term unemployment to such outcomes is the toll of internalized
stigma and self-blame (Rantakeisu et al. 1999;Eales1989; Creed and Dee Bartrum
2007;McKee-Ryanetal.2005). Studies about the effects of internalized stigma on
health directly connect negative health outcomes to the kinds of experiences routinely
associated with long-term unemployment, namely continuously exposing oneself to
social evaluation under conditions of uncertainty and threat to one’sidentity(Keating
2009,p75;MajorandO’Brien 2005). Another important implication of internalized
stigma and self-blame is that it makes very unlikely the mobilization of collective
action on the part of unemployed workers to seek structural changes that address the
underlying roots of long-term unemployment (Sharone 2007). Finally, the internaliza-
tion of stigma is also linked to social withdrawal and isolation due to fears of being
rejected or otherwise subjected to the pain of the stigma (Hatzenbuehler et al. 2013;
Link and Phelan 2001). Such social isolation becomes a further barrier to re-
employment as well as another mechanism undermining wellbeing and health
Unemployed American workers’day-to-day experience of repeated employer
rejections is mediated and framed by self-help support discourses and practices
disseminated through books, videos, workshops, support organizations, and
coaching services. Self-help encourages job seekers to see themselves as in control
of their career destinies and deemphasizes the role of factors outside job seekers’
immediate control such as labor market institutions (Newman 1999;Ehrenreich
2005;Lane2011;Smith2001). For example, Sharone’s(2013 p.45) ethnography
of a self-help organization for unemployed professionals found that the organiza-
tion’s central message was: BTake con t rol…The main barrier is yourself, not the
government, not the market, it’syou.^Any job seeker skepticism about their
degree of control is preempted by the claim that skepticism reflects a negative
attitude and is a form of self-sabotage. Moreover, under the self-help model of
support, job seekers are expected only to display positive emotions and to keep to
themselves the negative emotional toll of long-term unemployment (Ehrenreich
control and positive attitude have been found as exacerbating self-stigmatization
and emotional isolation by systematically de-emphasizing the shared and
institutional roots of labor market obstacles and of the resultant emotional crisis
Given the varied negative effects of internalized stigma and the shortcomings in the
self-help support model it is important to examine whether other models of support are
viable in the American context. While self-help is currently the most common mode of
support prior research suggests that the preeminence of self help should not be viewed
as a cultural inevitability reflecting an all-powerful American culture of individualism
but rather as a selective activation of particular cultural narratives from among multiple
available narratives (Swidler 1986,2001; Bellah et al. 1985). Although self-help draws
upon discourses that have been part of America’scollectiveculturaltoolkitforcentu-
ries, American individualism exists alongside other more mutualistic and solidaristic
narratives, as well as sociological discourses of the structural roots of negative labor
The structural roots of unemployment are routinely articulated, among other
places, in sociology classes in colleges and universities, but such discourses are
conspicuously absent in support settings where unemployed workers gather to
make sense of the labor market challenges they face. By examining the effects of
sociologically-informed support discourses and practices in the context of unem-
ployment support this paper builds on the work of Hall and Lamont (2013);
specifically focusing on how institutions may facilitate Bsocial resilience.^Unlike
psychological approaches to resilience that emphasize individual qualities or
resources, the concept of social resilience focuses on Binstitutional and cultural
resources that groups and individuals mobilize to sustain their well-being,^(Hall
and Lamont 2013 p.2); specifically repertoires that enhance Bthe capacity of
individuals to maintain positive self-concepts; dignity and a sense of inclusion,
belonging and recognition^(Lamont et al. 2013. p.130). For individuals facing an
assault on their sense of self from the workings of economic and social institutions
the key question is Bwhether they have at their disposal alternative repertoires for
evaluating themselves^(ibid. 2013 p.18).
The availability of alternative repertoires of self-evaluation is necessary but not
sufficient. Social resilience also requires an institutional context that activatesnarratives
of the shared and structural underpinnings of the challenges one is facing. As Hall and
Lamont (2013 p.14) recognize resilience is not something that passively happens but
Social resilience is the result of active processes of response. Groups do not
simply call passively on existing sets of resources. Social resilience is the product
of a much more creative process in which people assemble a variety of tools,
including collective resources and new images of themselves, to sustain their
well-being in the face of social change.
Swidler (2001) shows the critical role of institutions in accounting for the activation
of narratives, explaining that Beven when each individual’s worldview taken as a whole
may seem incoherent…consistent patterns appear in the culture of many individuals
when they all confront similar institutional constraints^(Swidler 2001,p.134).Or,as
Lamont et al. (2013 p.136) put it, institutions help us understand Bwhy individuals are
more likely to draw on one script rather than another.^
For long-term unemployed workers the needed institutional context to foster social
resilience is likely one that is markedly different from the self-help focus on individual
control. We hypothesize that facilitating social resilience requires sociologically-
informed institutions that elucidate the limits of individual control and the structural
nature of obstacles. This hypothesis is rooted in a growing literature that suggests that
recognition of structural barriers provides protection from the assault on the self that
comes with the internalization of stigma (Major et al. 2003; Stephens et al. 2014).
Examining this literature Hing (2013 p.173) shows that for members of a stigmatized
group being aware of potential barriers to employment, such as employer discrimina-
tion, means that when facing negative outcomes they are less likely to blame
themselves and internalize stigma. For example, Major et al. (2003) found that main-
tenance of self-esteem following employer rejections was much more likely among
women who understood such negative outcomes as potentially the result of prejudicial
attitudes toward women. Similarly, showing the importance of elucidating barriers,
Stephens et al. (2014) reveals how an intervention to support first generation college
students navigating university life is only effective when support resources are offered
together with facilitating such students’awareness of the structural and class-based
roots of the obstacles they face. Having an understanding of systematic and structural
barriers, as opposed to blaming oneself for negative outcomes, has also been shown to
have significant positive health consequences and to increase longevity (LaVeist et al.
2001). These findings have led numerous scholars to critique individualizing forms of
support noting that ignoring constraining external conditions can intensify the stigma-
tization and marginalization of the intended targets of support (Aronowitz et al. 2015)
and calling for a Bmore reflexive tack, cognizant of context as well as social structure^
(Scambler 2009 p452; Hatzenbuehler et al. 2013).
In short, the existing literature on the internalization of stigma, when applied to the
context of long-term unemployment in the U.S., suggest both the viability of and need
for sociologically-informed support institutions that activate narratives of mutuality and
structural obstacles to reduce self-stigmatization. While internalized stigma has severe
negative consequences, such internalization is not inevitable and can be countered with
efforts to challenge and resist stigma (Thoits 2011). As Lamont (2009 p.152) empha-
sizes Bhow individuals interpret and deal with^stigmatization, particularly whether or
not stigma is internalized, Bis a key intervening factor^in affects on mental and
physical health. Building on Lamont (2009) we examine how institutions of support
may facilitate individuals’destigmatization strategies. The support explored in this
paper fits Cook et al.’s(2014) broad category of an interpersonal-level intervention
targeting members of stigmatized group, but is distinct in its focus on raising
unemployed workers awareness of labor market structural obstacles. The findings
described below shows that this support illuminates external obstacles and the
shared nature of the unemployment experience, which in turn facilitates social
resilience and destigmatization.
Soc-Informed Support and Methodology
To explore the effects of soc-informed support for long-term unemployed workers we
began by reaching out to the community of Boston area career coaches and counselors
(which we will refer to collectively as Bcoaches^) using professional associations,
e-mail listservs, and word-of-mouth. We invited coaches to attend meetings to
discuss recent sociological research about long term unemployment, including
findings regarding employer discrimination against long-term unemployed job
seekers and the emotional toll of long-term unemployment. At such meetings we
also invited the coaches to participate in our research on the effect of support.
Ultimately 42 coaches agreed to have us match them with long-term unemployed
job seekers and to provide to them three months of free support. The coaches did
not receive compensation for providing such support or for participating in our
research but were motivated by the opportunity to help long-term unemployed
workers directly through support and indirectly via research.
The coaches were not given any particular instructions with respect to the
content of their substantive advice on job search strategies but were encouraged
to depart from the self-help support model in two important respects. First,
meetings with coaches focused on prior research showing job seekers’tendency
to self-stigmatize and how self-help support discourses emphasizing job seeker
control may exacerbate this tendency. Based on this research coaches were
encouraged to avoid control discourses and openly acknowledge structural barriers
to reemployment, including discrimination on the basis of unemployment dura-
tion. Open recognition of barriers was also directly communicated to job seekers
by the researchers sharing findings from studies concerning unemployment dis-
crimination during an in-person group meeting. Second, meetings with coaches
emphasized and explained the emotional toll of long-term unemployment and how
self-help support that only allows sharing of positive emotions can result in
heightened emotional isolation. Based on this research coaches were encouraged
to create support environments in which job seekers felt welcomed to share the
full range of their emotional experiences. While some coaches initially hesitated to
engage in support which sounded to them like Btherapy^(which they felt unqual-
ified to do), discussions with fellow coaches and the researchers clarified that the
intent of this dimension of support is not inner-work or psychological analysis but
creating a context which would allow the recognition of shared conditions and
experiences, and which may activate narratives of mutuality and structural under-
pinnings to interpret of one’sunemployment.
To recruit long-term unemployed job seekers we reached out to Boston area career
centers, networking groups, and libraries, and invited job seekers to sign up for the
opportunity to receive free support and participate in research. Interested job seekers
were asked to complete a short survey in order for us to determine whether they met the
following criteria: (i) unemployed six months or longer, (ii) between the ages of 40–65,
(iii) white-collar occupations, and (iv) looking for work in the Boston area. While over
800 job seekers signed up for the opportunity to receive free support only 125 met the
criteria for participation. From among this group we randomly selected 100 to be
matched with coaches to receive free support either in one-on-one or in small-facilitated
groups. The job seekers meeting the criteria for participation were 55 % male and 45 %
female with a mean age of 54 and 27 years of work experience.
The study focuses on workers over the age of 40 because older workers are
more likely than their younger counterparts to get trapped in long-term unemploy-
ment (e.g., Lassus et al. 2015).
Our specific focus on older white-collar workers is motivated by prior research that
suggests that the internalization of stigma is particularly prevalent among this group of
workers (e.g. Newman 1999;Sharone2013), which, on the one hand, creates a tougher
challenge for soc-informed support, but on the other hand, might render more clearly
visible any mechanisms of de-stigmatization generated by soc-informed support. We
recognize that due to self-selection our sample likely consists of unemployed job
seekers with higher than average levels of motivation to receive support, but do not
think the level of motivation to receive support corresponds to a higher or lower
likelihood of soc-informed support facilitating de-stigmatization.
This paper primarily draws on qualitative data gathered by means of in-depth
interviews of 40 long-term unemployed job seekers, 25 of whom were interviewed
both before and after they received 3 months of soc-informed support. These semi-
structured in-depth interviews were conducted either in-person or by telephone and
lasted approximately 60–120 min each. In interviews conducted prior to job seekers
receiving support we asked questions regarding their experience looking for work, the
effect of unemployment on their emotional wellbeing and personal relationships. In
interviews conducted after support we asked similar questions as well as a set of
questions about the effect of the support they had received. Job seekers were motivated
to share their experiences with the researchers as participation was understood as
reciprocation for receiving free support.
The Challenge of Long-Term Unemployment
To examine how soc-informed support may mediate the experience of long-term
unemployment it is necessary to first describe briefly the most salient challenges of
long-term unemployment for our research participants. We focus on elements of the
experience that are specific to being long-term unemployed, the essence of which is
enduring a string of labor market rejections.
In interviews long-term unemployed job seekers describe the job market as akin to a
Bblack hole.^This metaphor conveys the utter lack of employer response to their
applications despite the fact that such applications often require significant effort.
Arnold describes the black hole as the Bthing that really kills me.^He continues: BYou
never find out why you didn’tgetit…What is it that you’re judging me on?…You j u s t
end up with this big void.^This void leaves it up to job seekers to interpret the reasons
for their labor market difficulties, which frequently results in highly individualized
accounts. Dan explains how creeping self-doubt fills the empty space. Like so many
other job seekers, Dan experiences the job search as a roller coaster ride. Each
application starts with excitement:
You see a new thing on the web, and you read the description …I’ll say, ‘That’s
me! I can do all that.’And the first thing you do is you hit the apply online button
and you go through the whole application online …‘Hey, I’m going to get that
job because I’m the right guy for that job.’Where it turns into a negative is when
you don’t hear back anything…That’s the frustrating part and the part where you
feel like you’re just going into a black hole…It makes you question yourself more
because it makes you feel like your background, your experience is just not
enough. It hits a lot of different buttons. It hits your self esteem. If you don’thear
anything it leaves you with self doubt and the self esteem thing gets hit.
Together with the hit to one’s sense of self often comes discouragement about
continuing with the search. Becky explains the black hole experience as Bdeadening.^
She continues: BIdon’t know how else to say it. I guess that’s the best word I can think
of. It sets you back. Makes it difficult to roll up your sleeves and try again.^In Gail’s
case she became so discouraged by the lack of employer response that she completely
ceased searching. She explains:
Gail: It’shorrible.It’s the most depressing thing I can think of…Once you send in
a resume or a cover letter or go through the application process online, it’sthis
black box where you’re not sure what’s happening behind the scenes with your
information. So it’s very depressing because either you get absolutely no
response at all, or you get a computer generated message most of the time.
That was probably one of the reasons that I …needed to walk away from it
for a while. It was emotionally really bad. It was just very depressing and I
Au: What makes you feel most discouraged?
Gail: Not getting any response at all. I would just get very discouraged and
Iwouldstop…Even though I had these feelings of desperation financially, I
actually going to get me anywhere. I just didn’tthinkanybodycaredto
employ me, to be quite honest. I felt like my resume was going down a
Gail’s experience of the black hole and the resulting discouragement is typical for
the long-term unemployed workers we interviewed. A month prior to this interview
Gail had ceased her job search and therefore would be classified by the Bureau of
Labor Statistics as a Bdiscouraged worker,^one of millions of Americans who have
dropped out of the labor force at record levels since the Great Recession (BLS 2016).
The word Bdiscouraged^implies that a worker stops looking because s/he perceives the
likelihood of getting a job as low. This certainly captures part of the Gail’sexperience
but misses the core emotional dynamic which leaves job seekers feeling unworthy of a
response. The void left by the black hole is filled with a personalized account, as Gail
put it: no one Bcared to employ me.^
The dispiriting black hole experience leads most job seekers to believe that their
only chance of gaining employment is networking –understood as reaching out to one’s
existing network of social contacts and forming new contacts to obtain referrals. Joyce
explains that despite the fact that she has not networked much she perceives the utmost
importance of networking for someone in her position:
I should be networking more than anybody else, not less…Especially for me,
where I recognize I’ve been out so long. My chances of getting even an interview
where I don’t have either a push or a recommendation or something from
somebody who knows somebody at the employer, means that realistically my
chances are very low, based on my resume alone.
Yet, the same black hole experience that leads job seekers to perceive it necessary to
network also makes it harder to do. While feeling a need to increase the frequency of
their social interactions, most long-term unemployed job seekers report a decrease in
interactions. Strikingly, an overwhelming majority of job seekers we interviewed
reported a difficult time reaching out to precisely those contacts that they believe
would be beneficial to landing a job, including previous colleagues or other employed
friends. Job seekers’reflections on this difficulty focus on their internalized stigma and
sense of lacking self worth. Carl explained the difficulty of networking this way:
I don’t talk to my friends as much. I’munemployed.I’m different than they are at
this point. I think the hardest thing is this loss of the social prestige of just having
a job. Now you’re just unemployed.
Deborah likewise explains the difficulty of connecting with others as rooted in the
loss of status and self-devaluation:
Ihaveself-flagellation…This is a fairly major yardstick that we all put against
ourselves, our employment. We define ourselves partly by what we do. Right
now I’ve had the rug pulled out from under me in terms of how I identify myself.
I’m right back in high school and college, trying to find myself again.
The internalization of stigma leads job seekers to perceive interactions with former
colleagues and friends not as an exchange among equals but necessarily, and humili-
atingly, focusing on their unemployed status. As Robert explained: Bme being unem-
ployed is like this hole in lots of things to talk about. People are saying, ‘How are you
doing getting a job?’It’s not a fun conversation.^Ruth elaborated how negative
feelings about herself create an intense obstacle to interacting with others:
Idon’t want to contact people, my friends. I’membarrassed.I’mhumiliated.I
feel like a loser. And I don’twanttocallanyone,Ijustdon’twanttotalkto
anybody…I had very close friends, people that I worked with at [company
name]. I mean seven years! I had friends there and I just don’t contact them.
It is precisely Ruth’s former colleagues who are likely to be her most effective
networking contacts because they can vouch for her qualifications. Yet, these col-
leagues are difficult to approach because of internalized stigma—the fear of appearing
like a Bloser^among one’s professional peers. The reluctance to connect with others,
including friends, not only makes it impossible to receive job search support such as
referrals, but in many cases also entails severe social isolation.
Unemployed job seekers tend to become progressively more isolated over time.
Isolation begins with the loss of coworkers that accompanies the loss of one’sjob.
Kevin describes the isolation as Bthe hardest thing.^When Kevin’swifepassedaway
several years ago the workplace became his primary location for social interaction. BI
miss the guys. The voices. The ten minutes to get coffee…Their friendship.^But
isolation is also an issue for those who are married. Mickey does not share his negative
experiences with his wife because he has found that she is not supportive, often telling
him Byou are not doing enough.^This kind of spousal attitude becomes a source of
additional intense emotional pain. As Mickey puts it: BWhat the hell?…[She] might
think I’m not doing anything, but looking for job is more than 40 h. You always have to
be on. That’s a stress.^Other job seekers remain isolated in their experiences because
they do not want to burden loved ones with their anxieties. Sam, for example, has not
told his parents that he is unemployed, rhetorically asking: BWhy do I need to have
them worry about that? I don’tliketoburdenpeoplewithhowI’mfeeling.^Whether
job seekers are protecting loved ones from the despair as in the case of Sam, or are
subjected to interactions that exacerbate it as in the case of Mickey, the tendency among
most job seekers we interviewed is to isolate themselves and not share their experience.
Soc-informed Support and the Mechanisms of Destigmatization
The long-term unemployment experiences of deepening self-devaluation and social
withdrawal described above are substantially generated by two mechanisms: On the
one hand, these are produced by the objective scarcity of good jobs together with
employers’often discriminatory hiring practices which systematically screen out
long-term unemployed candidates with silent rejections—giving rise to the black
hole experience. On the other hand, these experiences are also partially a product
of job seekers’activation of individualizing narratives to interpret such negative
labor market outcomes.
Interviews with unemployed workers after three months of soc-informed support
suggest that for most workers soc-informed support facilitated de-stigmatization and a
re-valuation of the self. While the first mechanism, the scarcity of good jobs and
discriminatory hiring practices are unchanged, soc-informed support countered and
mitigated the second mechanism of activating individualizing narratives. The
remainder of this paper examines the processes and mechanisms of re-valuation
generated by soc-informed support with the goal of contributing to the develop-
ment of a theory of how the application of sociologically-informed discourses and
practices outside of academic settings may contribute to de-stigmatization, social
resilience, and re-valuation.
Our interview data suggest that soc-informed support diminishes the internalization
of stigma and facilitates a revaluation of the self through a number of mutually
reinforcing mechanisms, including: 1) breaking job seekers’emotional isolation which
in turn normalizes the experience of negative feelings and self-doubt, 2) recognition
that others in the same boat are meritorious but nonetheless shut out of the labor
market, which creates an opening for revaluing one’s own merits and a destigmatized
understanding of labor-market outcomes, 3) engaging in practices to construct a self-
narrative of value, and 4) illumination of institutional barriers to finding a job and
developing a structural understanding of the search process which further de-
individualizes outcomes. Reflexivity about structural and shared conditions not only
make possible a re-valued self but as a consequence of re-valuation counters job search
discouragement and allows for more effective engagement in difficult job search
practices such as networking. In short, the challenges facing long-term unemployed
workers—the black hole leading to self-devaluation, withdrawal and isolation—are met
by experiences of connection with similar others, re-valuation of the self, and re-
engagement in job searching.
The first mechanism is breaking the emotional isolation. As previously described,
unemployed job seekers tend to become increasingly isolated over time. In the context
of soc-informed support, where openly discussing hardships and external obstacles was
encouraged, job seekers described the relief that came from recognizing that they are
Bnot alone^in their experiences. Kevin, who had described isolation from former
colleagues and friends as the Bhardest thing,^explained it this way:
It was great to talk with people on a regular basis who were in the same position
as I was. Some of them had been unemployed longer than I had been, some
somewhat less. But they were all facing many of the same things I had.
Crucial to breaking the sense of isolation was hearing about others’similar emo-
tional experiences. Robert, who previously discussed isolation from friends, explained
how the support helps with knowing Byou’re not alone and the emotional feelings you
have are not just yours alone, these other people have them.^In some cases job seekers
like Ruth, who had previously told us how she feels Bembarrassed^and ^like a loser,^
expressed surprise upon learning in her group that others felt just like her:
Everybody feels very blue. I had no idea. IthoughtIwastheonlyone,andwhen
somebody brought it up, then we started talking, and it sounded like everybody
was pretty much feeling like they were circling the drain. In some ways it felt
better that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t isolated in the discouragement. Others
were discouraged, too.
Walter described the process of realizing that he is not alone in his experience as
Bbeing with other people who were in a similar situation and just realizing that
everyone has these hidden issues.^Unlike the dominant self-help approach of job
seeker support, where typically only positive displays of emotions are welcomed
(Ehrenreich 2005;Lane2011;Smith2001;Sharone2013) it is precisely the soc-
informed approach, where the negative emotional toll is encouraged to be shared in
the context of empathic peers, that job seekers come to feel relief from isolation. Kate, a
former executive, felt that this form of support allowed her to share and receive
empathy from others, giving her the sense that others also cared about her: BThat’s
where the support comes in. Even just people who are in the same situation as me, but
knowing that they care enough.^
Breaking the emotional isolation is a necessary first step. Yet, given the specific
challenges facing long-term unemployed workers, an important second step is address-
ing the core struggle against self-devaluation through a set of reinforcing discourses
and practices that make apparent structural barriers to employment unrelated to indi-
vidual skills and abilities. For example, Becky, who had previously described the black
hole experience as Bdeadening^and as making it hard to Broll up your sleeves and try
again,^explained that Bit’s helpful to be part of a group and recognize I’m not alone.^
But in Becky’s case Bnot being alone^meant something different from reducing social
and emotional isolation; it meant getting to know and appreciate the merits of the other
people who are similarly stuck in long-term unemployment, which creates an opening
for interpreting one’s long-term unemployment in a new light. Becky describes her
experience as follows:
Itry not to let [unemployment] have an impact on my self esteem and confidence,
but I wouldn’t be completely honest if I said it had no impact. ….Jane[another
group member] is doing everything she can and she’s not getting anywhere either,
although she gets a bunch of interviews. There’s another woman who I think is
incredibly thoughtful and very, very [pause] I would hire her in a heartbeat if I
had a job to give her, which I don’t. I think she’swonderful.Soit’snicetobe
among people you think are very competent and just unfortunate in that situation.
That sounds like misery loves company, but I don’tmeanitlikethat.Imeanit’s
just kinda nice to mix it up with other people that are also trying to move in the
Becky’s quote reveals how in her struggle to maintain a self understanding as a
valuable and skilled professional it is helpful to recognize that others who she sees as
putting in great effort in their search (Bdoing everything^)andwhohavemuchvalueto
contribute (Bvery competent^) are nonetheless also long term unemployed. This rec-
ognition allows job seekers like Becky to entertain the possibility that they are likewise
competent and hardworking and Bjust unfortunate in that situation.^Dan, who had
previously shared how not hearing anything back from employers Bhits your self-
esteem,^provided a similar example how soc-informed support helped re-value
And being with a group of people who are in the same boat, it’svery[pause]
what’s the word? It makes you feel less strange. Because when you’re unem-
ployed, you tend to feel like there’ssomethingwrongwithyou,eventhoughthere
isn’t. But after a while you get that way because people keep rejecting you for
jobs and stuff. So when you’re with this group of people and you realize there’s
two lawyers, there’s a marketing professional, there’s all these people with all
these skills and they’re also having trouble finding stuff for whatever reason. It
just helps you feel better about yourself.
The twin recognition of one’s long-term unemployed peers as experiencing
similar emotional turmoil (Bcircling the drain^) and as accomplished professionals
(Bpeople with all these skills^) alters the lens of self-evaluation. Replacing the
interpretive lens—typically reinforced by self-help—through which job seekers
understand negative job search outcomes as reflecting a meritocratic judgment
with a broader lens that includes a sociological appreciation of external barriers
that keep even highly skilled workers unemployed and which wreaks emotional
havoc and sow self-doubt without regard to actual merit. Recognition of structural
barriers conveys to job seekers a powerful if indirect message that negative
outcomes in the labor market, as Gina put it, Bare not just something about me.^
In short, soc-informed support allowed theparticipantstoobservethemselvesin
relation to others, and thus activated mutualistic and de-individualizing narratives
to interpret of their own predicament.
With soc-informed support practices facilitating the recognition of the merits of
others in the same boat more conventional support practices can work to fill the
interpretive vacuum created by the black hole with a re-constructed narrative about
the self. For a few this re-valuation of the self is helped by the simple act of having the
coach or group reflect back to the job seeker the valuable skills they posses. For most,
however, more powerful than the validating recognition of others was the re-valuation
produced by active practices of re-constructing a self-narrative. Here re-valuation of the
self is an unintended byproduct of support practices focused on honing job seekers’
self-presentation to employers. Coaches encourage job seekers to dig into their past,
excavate successes and accomplishments, and then deduce from these successes a list
of skills and strengths that can be clearly conveyed in the writing of resumes and cover
letters, and communicated verbally during networking and interviews. Beyond self-
presentation to others the interpretive space created by the twin recognitions of the
shared and structural roots of obstacles also makes possible a re-constructed presenta-
tion of the self to the self. For example, Bob shared how Bwhen you’re let go, you get
discouraged, frustrated, disappointed, feel like a failure,^but he explained that the
support he received helped him recognize Bthe positive things that I’ve done in my
career and has helped me see that focus. So keeping me aligned with what I can offer an
organization, rather than what it was that I wasn’t able to offer.^Describing the
same effect Michael explains that the support he has received has been Bfantastic,^
exclaiming: BIt’sbeenjustphenomenalemotionallyforme.^The emotional boost
is due to the way support engaged him in self-analysis practices that transformed
achieved. It has helped my self esteem by realizing, yes, I have done things,
and I am proud of some things that I have done…No one is putting on any
airs in the group. There’s nobody who is bragging, arrogant, whatever it may
be. But people who are finding out things that they should be proud of and
sharing that with each other.
Gail, who had previously shared her deep discouragement about the job search
describes how this active process of excavating past successes Bmade me realize that I
have a lot of skills that never go away.^She then linked her recognition of skills that
Bnever go away^to countering her discouragement: BIf I keep pursuing it, eventually I
will find the right connection, the right match.^
The self re-valuation that takes place in the soc-informed support context is also
aided by job seekers’experience of helping others in the group. Mickey, who previ-
ously discussed feeling isolated in his own marriage because his wife thinks he’sBnot
doing enough,^explained his improved emotional wellbeing as generated by going to
meetings where B[I] try to help people, give advice. So at the end of the day [I] can say
‘I helped somebody.’So you feel good.^Beth likewise reported feeling better about her
self due to Bbeing part of a group. I like feeling like I’m helping other people there with
my thoughts or giving them my responses or confirming how they feel etc.^Or as
Mitch explained: BThe group has helped my self-esteem. It is the fact that I feel like I’m
doing something in terms of participating in this and trying to contribute to my group…
It’sbeen priceless and I think vital.^
Practices that encourage job seekers to excavate past accomplishments to hone self-
presentation to employers, or to provide peer support to other job seekers, are fairly
widespread in American support organizations, including self-help support. Prior
studies suggest that in the typical context of continuous silent rejections from em-
ployers, filtered by individualizing and stigmatizing self-help narratives, such practices
in and of themselves do not counter the tendency of job seekers to self-devaluate
(Newman 1999, Smith 2001, Sharone 2013). Yet, our findings suggest that undertaken
within the broader soc-informed support context, which works to activate
destigmatizing narratives about negative outcomes, these practices do contribute to
the process of self-revaluation.
The soc-informed support as described thus far facilitates destigmatization through
fostering the recognition of the shared and structural roots of the emotional toll, and the
recognition that meritorious others are trapped in the same situation. Another way soc-
informed support works to destigmatize unemployment is by illuminating the often
invisible institutional barriers which job seekers confront in seeking employment.
Hiring institutions–the patterned practices and discourses that structure the labor
market—are often obscure to job seekers who only perceive a black hole. Unlike
self-help messages that emphasize individual control (McGee 2005, Sharone 2013)
soc-informed support clarifies the inner workings of these institutions, which helps job
seekers activate a less personalized and more structural ways of interpreting outcomes.
This effect is crystalized in Deborah’s description of the support she received. As
previously discussed Deborah had shared, prior to the support, about experiencing
Bself-flagellation^and how unemployment has meant having the Brug pulled out from
under me in terms of how I identify myself.^Deborah adds that this self-
flagellation was partly the result of her sense of Bworking blind,^and that Bunless
you’ve got oodles of self confidence, it’s very difficult to work blind.^In
Deborah’s case soc-informed support shed light on what happens when
Bapplications come in online. How many people do they actually pick up the
phone and call?^Deborah continues how now she recognizes that:
It’s a probability thing.Ifyou’re up against 20 people, you have less of a chance
than if you’re up against three people…I felt like I was given encouragement that
it isn’treallygoingtoablackhole,oritdoesn’t always go to a black hole. But
more than that, really was the fact that it’s a numbers game.
This interpretation of difficulties in finding a job as at least partly reflecting
institutionalized forces unrelated to individualized evaluations of merit not only
takes the personal sting out of rejections but importantly allows for greater
resilience in going forward with the search. This depersonalized interpretation of
silent rejections motivated Deborah to once again begin actively job searching.
The support, as she put it, helped her recognize that BI’mstilleminentlyemploy-
able…I just have to keep working at it.^The increased resilience as a result of the
support was a common theme discussed by job seekers. In addition to de-
stigmatizing negative outcomes, the activation of narratives of institutional bar-
riers is also important in changing job seekers’expectations about length of time
required for finding a job. Instead of a sprint the job search is now understood as a
marathon. Arnold, who had discussed the black hole as the thing that Breally kills
me,^explained how a clearer understanding of the hiring process has changed the
experience from a futile black hole to one that requires persistence:
Before it was more a feeling of futility of things going into black holes in the
Internet when applying for jobs. But now it’s just a matter of hanging in there and
continuing with the process and continuing with the flow. And at some point,
things will connect.
The understanding of the job search as involving external obstacles, and therefore
requiring significant time and endurance, similarly helped Mary maintain the resilience
needed to continue with the search, explaining: BIt just gave me more of a spirit. You've
just got to keep going. Something is going to happen eventually. You’ve got to keep
working at it. You’ve got to put your time and effort in.^Resilience in continuing to
search is also fostered by reminding job seekers that unlike other games, in the job
search game, as Marc put it: BYou only need to succeed once. Success does not require
being Blike a baseball player batting three hundred.^To succeed in this game Byou can
bat one in one thousand.^
An important indicator of the destigmatizing effect of soc-informed support were the
changes in job seekers search practices. As previously discussed, while job seekers
recognize the importance of using their networks as part of their search they are often
reluctant to do so. Networking is fraught for long-term unemployed workers who have
internalized stigma. Rather than reaching out long-term unemployed job seekers tend to
back away from social contacts. The destigmatization facilitated by soc-informed
support can be seen by job seekers’expression of greater confidence in reaching out
to others. As Carl, who previously discussed not reaching out to his network because
Bof the loss of social prestige,^explained how the soc-informed support helped him:
It gives you the confidence you need to go to the next level of connecting with
people who have knowledge. Being confident, being assertive, getting people to
notice and respond. I’m more confident in what I bring to the table.
Joyce, who also had previously discussed her difficulty networking prior to support,
similarly explained one of the main effects of the support was Bfeeling good about
myself in general. Then I think that the picture I projected to whoever I was talking to
was better.^She continued by noting that Bthe words might have been the same and the
circumstances, but it was just because I was feeling better about myself. I could make a
The de-stigmatized interpretation of outcomes is also evident in how supported job
seekers dealt with the most loaded moment they typically face in the search process:
Being asked by an employer to explain their resume gap. When asked this question job
seekers perceive a clear if unstated employer presumption of laziness, incompetence, or
some other flaw. Arnold describes his experience with the gap question:
with this other guy and the first question he asks is, ‘So what have you been
doing the last couple years?’Ijustcouldn’tbelieveit…Just to hear this guy, I felt
like smashing his face in. This guy has got no clue what’s going on.
Soc-informed support helped job seekers shift employers’default assumptions.
Linda explains the challenge as well as how support helped:
Linda: Critical to getting me back, into motivating me to continue searching
online and doing the job search, was getting support about how to explain my
down time when I haven’tbeenemployed…IworryhowI’m perceived because
when you go, they always do ask: What have you been doing the past 3 years?…
They want somebody who has been working to date. They don’twanttotake
somebody out of the employment market…That’smypersonalfear.^
Au: Support helped to handle that?
Linda: We’ve talked about the answers. For example, last week I went through
the whole [interview] process and they didn’t seem at all questioning of my
response. I explained it. I said, ‘I got laid off…The economy tanked.’
The support diffuses this emotionally loaded moment by helping job seekers take a
more structural perspective on their own position (and those of millions of others in the
same situation) and in turn communicate to potential employers that the gap is not a
reflection on merit but of structural factors.
For employers the resume gap creates an interpretive vacuum much like the black
hole of silent rejections for job seekers. The black hole leaves it up to seekers to
interpret employers’silence while with resume gaps it is employers who are faced with
avoid–the empty time at the top of the resume—into which stigmatized narratives are
typically inserted to interpret the gap. As Linda’s story illustrates, soc-informed support
and destigmatization can empower job seekers to challenge employers’default
Soc-informed support and recognition that Bwe’re in the same boat^is not uniformly
a positive experience. In some cases the group can exacerbate fears. For example, for
Peter the Bgroup is not a good place.^He explains:
The group that I’min…They’ve all been out of work a very long time…What got
me down was when some of them have been out of work for 8 years…That’s not
motivating me in my situation.
While Peter has been unemployed 7 months, the unintended and disturbing message
he perceived from the group is that the others, who are unemployed much longer than
he is, may foreshadow his fate. Yet, Peter’s experience was the exception. The more
common response of interviewees was reporting that the soc-informed support was
useful on multiple levels. Sam, another member of Peter’s own small support group,
who prior to support had described suffering from isolation, explained the effect of the
support as follows:
The support has been priceless. It’sbeenjustabsolutelywonderful.IfeellikeI’mina
group with some other people who are having successes in moving through this
process of self-analysis. Everyone has bumps in the road, but the assignments and our
coach have been just great and encouraging each other. So it’sbeen just priceless.
Long-term unemployment frequently leads to debilitating internalization of stigma and
self-devaluation that challenges American workers’wellbeing as well as their prospects
for reemployment. Prior research suggests that dominant self-help support institutions
tend to exacerbate such self-devaluation by activating individualizing narratives. In this
paper we examine whether and how sociologically-informed forms of support may
activate an alternative set of narratives that counter such self-stigmatization. Our
findings suggest that soc-informed support can indeed activate more structural
and shared understandings of long-term unemployment among white-collar Amer-
ican workers. The American culture individualism, as powerful as it might be,
does not mean that self-blame is an inevitable outcome of unemployment for
American job seekers. Narratives that Bwe’re all in the same boat,^and that
unemployment is not Bjust something about me^are available as a Bcollective
resource^(Hall and Lamont 2013), and in particular institutional contexts these
narratives can be activated to counter long-term unemployment’stendencytolead
The currently dominant institutions of hiring in the U.S. generate an experience of a
black hole, which leaves unemployed job seekers with no institutionalized recognition
of their value or even existence. Our interviews with job seekers prior to receiving soc-
informed support showed that when facing silent rejections an internal narrative
typically gains force about individual shortcomings as job seekers activate dominant
and self-stigmatizing narratives for understanding their labor market challenges. These
findings are consistent with prior research (Newman 1999,Smith2001, Sharone 2013).
While the literature also finds that this self-devaluation may be exacerbated by self-help
support approaches that activate individualizing narratives by framing the finding work
as within the control of the individual job seeker, this paper suggests that soc-informed
support can interrupt this process. By breaking job seekers’isolation this form of
support facilitates unemployed workers’recognition that the emotional turmoil they are
privately experiencing is shared by similar others, and that contrary to dominant
stigmatizing narratives of unemployment, these others are talented and meritorious.
This dual recognition creates an opening for activating a different set of narratives for
self-valuation which reflect back a self that is not flawed but facing structural obstacles
and experiencing the widely shared emotional fallout generated by such obstacles.
Soc-informed support appears to provide a counterweight. Institutionalized silent
rejections are met with institutionalized forms of recognition. Soc-informed sup-
port works by transforming the interpretive lens through which job seekers
experience the black hole by de-stigmatizing outcomes and activating mutualistic
and sociological narratives that enhance social resilience and allow for more
effective engagement in job search practices.
In short, sociological discourses focused on the structural roots of unemployment—
when taken outside the academic classroom and utilized in supporting unemployed
workers in tandem with practices which allow workers to recognize the shared nature of
structurally rooted experiences, facilitate Bsocial resilience^(Hall and Lamont 2013).
This form of resilience is not the product of psychological mechanisms. It is a resilience
to counter social devaluation, stigmatization and discouragement not by focusing on
inner work or individual qualities but by tapping collective cultural resources and
activating available mutualistic and sociological narratives to illuminate the role of
institutions in creating shared and structurally rooted challenges. Building on the social
resilience literature this paper shows how activating such narratives and facilitating the
understanding the institutional roots of challenges can contribute to self re-valuation
In addition to building theory, the findings in this paper also have important
practical implications. While conceptualizations of American culture as monolith-
ically individualistic suggest that local institutional innovations are unlikely to
succeed absent a broad and fundamental cultural change, this paper points to the
viability of a strategy of developing and gradually diffusing sociologically-
informed support institutions. Our findings of re-valuation after only three months
of weekly support suggest that long-term unemployed workers’self-devaluation is
not as deeply embodied and internalized as implied by theories such as Bourdieu’s
(1990,2001) symbolic violence. The soc-informed support described in this paper
does not work by retraining a deeply ingrained habitus but by activating alterna-
tive narratives about the workings of the labor market, and more broadly, about
the self in relation to others and social institutions. These encouraging findings
suggest the value of further research to explore the scalability of this form of
support as well as the most effective ways to deliver it.
Unemployment frequently triggers a dual crisis: the loss of income and the loss of
self. While fully addressing the problem of unemployment would require policies that
eliminate both elements, including the scarcity of good jobs and discriminatory hiring
practices, soc-informed support does address the devastation to the self wrought by
internalized stigma. Addressing self-stigmatization is of substantial importance in its
own right, with its well-known consequences for health and job search discouragement.
But, moreover, diminishing self-stigmatization may also be perquisite to the possibility
of collective action aimed at addressing the underlying structural roots of unemploy-
ment (Felstiner et al. 1981).
The findings in this paper also have important implications for mitigating the
negative health effects of unemployment. As discussed in the introduction to this
paper one important link between negative health outcomes and unemployment
is self-stigmatization. Given this link, to the extent that soc-informed support
examined in this paper counters self-stigmatization it can be expected to also
shield unemployed workers from some of the negative health consequences of
unemployment. Future research should particularly focus on the effects of
destigmatization on those health outcomes that are typically linked to internal-
Finally, beyond long-term unemployment, we hope the encouraging findings
in this paper inspire considerations of other institutional innovations that activate
mutualistic narratives and foster a sociological imagination. The internalization of
stigma described in this paper arises in a variety of contexts. As Hall and Lamont
(2013 p.10) show currently dominant neoliberal institutions and discourses result
in varied populations coming to be defined, and often self-define, as Blosers.^
While the nature of such challenges is particularly acute for the long-term
unemployed, this extreme case allows us to more clearly see the kind of institu-
tional practices and mechanisms that can counteract this more broadly felt sense
Acknowledgments We would like to thank the AARP Foundation for funding that made this research
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volunteered their time to lend their expertise and support our participating job seekers including Amy Mazur,
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