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the Perspective of the
Psychology of Working
and Peter McIlveen
Unemployment is a ubiquitous problem that is a complex of cultural, economic interpersonal, physical,
and psychological dimensions. Whereas the pernicious negative outcomes of unemployment are empiri-
cally established in the literature, there is a need to better understand the psychological experiences of
unemployment so as to inform interventions that ameliorate its impact. The present research is based on
archival interview data and uses the psychology of working theory to understand 32 individuals’experiences
of unemployment. The findings include themes that are consistent with the hypothesized predictors posited
in the theory, including marginalization, economic constraints, volition, career adaptability, proactive
personality, critical consciousness, social support, and economic conditions. The research findings affirm
the conceptual precepts of the theory with regard to its predictors; thus, this contribution to the literature
on the psychology of working and unemployment opens new perspectives on a perennial problem.
unemployment, underemployment, decent work, workforce marginalization, age discrimination,
Unemployment is a variant of trauma and a scourge of public health associated with poorer physical
health (Griep et al., 2015) and mental health (Wanberg, 2012), including suicidal behavior (Milner,
Page, & LaMontagne, 2013, 2014). Despite the ubiquity of unemployment, extant vocational psychol-
ogy theories have been criticized for insufficiently addressing the plight of marginalized and underre-
presented peoples who are unemployed (Blustein, 2006, 2013). The present research is a response to
Blustein’s (2006) call for “experience near” (p. 238) research that conceptualizes the lived experience
of unemployment. Accordingly, we report on an in-depth qualitative investigation of the experience of
the unemployment from the perspective of the psychology of working theory (PWT; Duffy, Blustein,
Diemer, & Autin, 2016). Furthermore, the study is set in Australia and thereby is an exploration of the
PWT’s international utility.
School of Arts and Communication, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia
School of Linguistics Adult and Specialist Education, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia
Peter McIlveen, School of Linguistics Adult and Specialist Education, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba,
Journal of Career Development
ªCurators of the University
of Missouri 2017
Reprints and permission:
A core precept of the PWT is that decent work leads to satisfaction of needs, work fulfillment, and
well-being. Decent work is a combination of safe working conditions, personal time and rest, respect
for the needs of family, social values, provisions for compensation when income is not assured or
diminished, and access to health care (International Labour Office, 2015). The PWT posits predictors
(i.e., economic constraints and marginalization), mediators (i.e., work volition and career adaptabil-
ity), and moderators (i.e., proactive personality, critical consciousness, social support, and economic
conditions), the influence the experience of decent work. PWT is focused on decent work, and its
tenets may be used to understand unemployment as the absolute deprivation of decent work.
The PWT specifically addresses marginalization. Financial insecurity (Rohde, Tang, Osberg, & Rao,
2016), unemployment (Hoare & Machin, 2010), and underemployment (Winefield et al., 2002) con-
tribute to marginalization that is associated with diminished aspiration for and access to decent work.
Thus, unemployed persons may feel somehow on the outer, unaccepted, and not in the mainstream,
because they experience the disparity between what is, what could be, what may never be with respect
to aspirations past and present, and, moreover, a sense that they have somehow fallen short of meeting
stereotypical societal expectations and perceived expectations of proximal sources (e.g., family and
friends). The PWT focuses on the inherent relationship between economic constraints and psycholo-
gical experience of social class (cf. Diemer, Mistry, Wadsworth, Lo´pez, & Reimers, 2013) because
these factors impose structural limits on social mobility and negative psychological effects on individ-
uals, groups, and communities (Blustein, Kozan, Connors-Kellergren, & Rand, 2015; Diemer &
Rasheed, 2009). It is axiomatic that unemployed persons will feel economic constraints acutely follow-
ing loss of work and chronically if unable to rejoin the workforce.
Holding beliefs about choices with regard to working and career-related decisions is one thing and
knowing the limits of those choices is another. This delimitation of choice by awareness of context
is posited as volition (Duffy, Diemer, Perry, Laurenzi, & Torrey, 2012). Volition comprises beliefs;
it is a perception of environmental constraints juxtaposed with personal resources. It is a useful con-
struct because it operationalizes an individual setting realistic expectations about choice in socioeco-
nomic and cultural contexts. Self-efficacy is of no material value if the socioeconomic context is inert
and unreactive to a person’s aspirations and efforts, or worse still, opposed—to render dreams dashed
and futile. The PWT predicts that higher volition will improve the likelihood of attaining decent work.
Similarly, career adaptability (Savickas & Porfeli, 2012) is posited as a mediator between context and
outcomes. It is evident that career adaptability predicts unemployed persons’ job search behavior
(Koen, Klehe, & Van Vianen, 2013) and the subsequent quality of employment (Koen, Klehe, Van
Vianen, Zikic, & Nauta, 2010). Conversely, the PWT posits that economic conditions and experiences
of marginalization may diminish career adaptability, which is evident in the effects of job insecurity on
career adaptability (Maggiori, Johnston, Krings, Massoudi, & Rossier, 2013). Future outlook—posi-
tive and negative—is intrinsic to career adaptability, and for unemployed people, outlook mediates the
relationship between financial strain and psychological well-being (Creed & Klisch, 2005).
Proactive personality, which predicts objective (e.g., salary) and subjective (e.g., satisfaction) indica-
tors of career success (Seibert, Crant, & Kraimer, 1999), is regarded as a moderator of the effects found
in the relations among variables in PWT, such that it buffers the negative effects of marginalization
2Journal of Career Development XX(X)
and economic constraints on work volition and career adaptability. Proactive personality effects job
search behavior (Waters, Briscoe, Hall, & Wang, 2014; Zacher, 2013; Zacher & Bock, 2014); how-
ever, its effects on job search behavior do not directly lead to success in securing employment (Waters
et al., 2014). Evincing its reformist roots, PWT posits critical consciousness (Diemer, Rapa, Park, &
Perry, 2014; Freire, 1972) as a moderator variable which comprises (a) awareness of distal, societal,
and structural causes of social inequality; (b) beliefs in capacity to make changes to those causes; and
(c) performance of actions to effect change. Research affirms the relevance of social capital as a
dimension of employability for unemployed persons (McArdle, Waters, Briscoe, & Hall, 2007). Thus,
social support is a moderator variable in the PWT. For unemployed persons, social support is a buffer
for mental health (Milner, Krnjacki, Butterworth, & LaMontagne, 2016) and homelessness (Johnstone,
Parsell, Jetten, Dingle, & Walter, 2015), which is a scourge associated with unemployment.
The Current Study
The present research is an exploration of the lived experience unemployed adults who were in receipt
of payments from Centrelink, the Australian Government’s comprehensive welfare service agency for
recipients of financial benefits and services, and who had to take periods of casual (i.e., contingent)
employment to meet basic needs. The present study involves a post hoc analysis of archival interview
data collected as part of an earlier study (Kossen, 2008; Kossen & Hammer, 2010) into the lived
experiences of mature-aged individuals (45 years of age and over) who believed that their age contrib-
uted to their inability to gain adequate work during the Great Recession. Kossen’s original study
sought to understand the effects of unemployment from the perspective of people experiencing it with
an interest in exploring the hardships it brings to their lives and how they cope with the circumstances
in which they find themselves. To contextualize our approach to this research, we follow Morrow’s
(2005) recommendations for reporting qualitative research.
Philosophical Assumptions and Research Design
The present research was postpositivist in paradigm (Morrow, 2005; Ponterotto, 2005), and the archi-
val interview data were analyzed through a conceptual lens of PWT. The original research by Kossen
(2008) was exploratory (i.e., open-ended) and naturalistic, which was well suited for studying phenom-
ena in their natural setting. Accordingly, an unstructured open-ended style of interviewing known as
conversational interviewing (Marshall & Rossman, 2016) was used to allow interaction to proceed
along everyday conversational lines rather than a formulaic question and answer format. Structured
interviewing can inhibit depth and generation of new insights (Patton, 2015) and therefore conflict
with the participant-generated aims of exploratory research. The open approach enables and
encourages participants to raise and explain what they feel are the key issues and concerns they face
in their life circumstances (Kvale, 1996). Given the Great Recession and the experiences of the parti-
cipants were documented before publication of the PWT, the archival nature of the data enabled a crit-
ical analysis of the PWT’s capacity to explain the past research data.
There were N¼32 participants: 15 men (M
¼55.73 years, SD ¼5.40, range ¼46–63, Mdn ¼57)
¼51.18 years, SD ¼6.20, range ¼45–62, Mdn ¼48). The participants were
residents of a large regional Australian city with a population of approximately 130,000 persons and
a mixed economy primarily comprising health and human services, education, business services,
agriculture, and mining. Participants were recruited via invitation displayed at the offices of
Kossen and McIlveen 3
Centrelink and employment agencies that were subcontracted by the Australian Government to pro-
vide job-search services for unemployed people. Local media outlets were also used to publicize the
study. Intensity sampling (Patton, 2015) was used to select participants who had experienced what
they perceived to be negative bias from prospective employers. Participants were selected on the
following eligibility criteria:
1. They were 45 years of age or over.
2. They were unwillingly marginalized from the labor market, that is, unemployed or underem-
ployed/unsatisfactorily employed upon commencement of this research.
3. They felt strongly that age discrimination had adversely affected their employment prospects
and subsequent marginalization from the employment market.
The first author is a researcher in sociology and communication studies and focuses on disadvantage
associated with aging in society (Kossen & Hammer, 2010). The second author is a psychologist and
researcher in vocational psychology and counseling, with a demonstrable track record of reflexivity
in research (McIlveen, 2007; McIlveen, Beccaria, du Preez, & Patton, 2010). The second author
acted as an auditor of the data analysis whereby both authors engaged in critical reflections on the
interpretation of data.
Sources of Data
In accordance with the open-ended nature and naturalistic design of the original study (Kossen, 2008),
the overarching research questions were as follows:
Research question 1: What are the (subjective) life world experiences of mature-aged work-
ers who believe they are unable to gain adequate work due to age discrimination?
Research question 2: What strategies do participants use to cope with the hardships they
encounter under their marginalized employment circumstances?
The interviews with participants were in-depth conversations that were flexibly set around a range
of topics. Interview questions were open-ended so as to facilitate a wide-ranging conversation about
the participants’ personal experiences of unemployment. Sample questions included What lengths do
you go to in trying to gain employment? What are your experiences with employers, job agencies, and
job interviews? and What hardships have you experienced when unable to obtain employment and/or
sufficient employment? Data were collected using multiple interviews and prolonged engagement over
an 18-month period. Interviews ranged from 1 to 1.5 hr in duration and were conducted by the first
author in locations of participants’ choosing or by telephone. Transcripts were presented to participants
for them to verify the data and add depth to the description through further reflection. Multiple inter-
views, prolonged engagement, and participant checks are the indicators of credibility and trustworthi-
ness (Morrow, 2005). The study was approved by the Human Research Ethics Committee of James
The original interview transcripts were subject to thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2013) and fol-
lowed the recommended six-step procedure: (a) familiarization with the data, (b) generating initial
codes, (c) searching for themes, (d) reviewing themes, (e) defining and naming themes, and (f)
4Journal of Career Development XX(X)
producing the report (p. 87). Interview transcripts were progressively reviewed to extract commonly
recurring themes from the data. The processes of data generation and analysis were intrinsically
linked in an interactive process whereby data from each interview were compared and analyzed with
the previous data, as a form of constant comparison (Corbin & Strauss, 2014). The excerpts reported
here have been selectively identified as representational anecdotes, and pseudonymsareusedtorep-
resent the participants’ names. Their reports are organized in terms of the PWT’s predictors, mod-
erators, and mediators.
Results and Discussion
The findings are thematically organized according to the PWT’s categories of predictors (i.e., margin-
alization and economic constraints), mediators (i.e., volition and career adaptability), and moderators
(i.e., proactive personality, critical consciousness, social support, and economic conditions).
Marginalization in the labor market is not evenly distributed. After 45 years of age, increases in age are
associated with increased likelihood of unemployment and underemployment. Mature-aged workers
have higher susceptibility to employability profile scarring and, as such, are more vulnerable to
long-term unemployment if they are unfortunate enough to lose a job. The following data reflect this
from the viewpoint of participants, in which they hold that losing work at their age was a case of mis-
fortune and at the heart of their problems, rather than any inherent lack of capacity for productive
Out of nowhere the company was taken over by another, and with the stroke of a pen I was unemployed. It
was really bad timing for me as I was now 50, and no matter how good you were at your job, getting a good
job again after 50 can be very difficult. (Steven, mid-50s)
Personal experiences of marginalization felt like being deprived of a normal life across all facets of
their lives including ability to fund the basic costs of living. The views expressed were consistent with
relative poverty and reveal a sense of isolation from mainstream life and subsequent relegation to an
underclass, the impacts of which, in many cases, affected children and other family members.
Our son wanted a new shirt. I have no way of affording that!He needs good gear to feel good about himself.
He says other kids have this stuff and complains about how unfair it is. (Bronwyn, early 50s)
We miss out on a lot. We can’t even have people over for a meal. This stops us from being able to have
friends or socialize with family. It’s getting hard to see any bright side in our lives. (Bert, mid-50s)
Participants revealed resourcefulness in managing restricted finances; buying discounted groceries
close to supermarket closing times and bringing prepared food on shopping trips which in Sally’s
(early 60s) case results in her granddaughter questioning: “Why can’t we buy lunch like everybody
else?” This again exemplified the feelings of marginalization from mainstream into a class of
In addition to growing up in pressured and constrained developmental circumstances, Duffy, Blus-
tein, Diemer, and Autin (2016) note that the impacts of marginalization often flow through to negative
educational opportunities and outcomes for children in these families.
It’s the kids that miss out on so much compared to others, it’s degrading for them. (Rosie, mid-40s)
Kossen and McIlveen 5
Participants strongly rejected what they believed was a widespread belief among employers that peo-
ple of their age tended to be less adaptable and proactive and positive in disposition.
Once you’re over 50 they start treating you differently—younger managers begin to doubt your ability sim-
ply because of your age, they think you’re “not with it,” “past your use by date.” Age is a really bad sign,
unless you’re higher up .... (Ben, early 60s)
Participants in this study strongly rejected the notion that they were less adaptable and less able and
willing to learn compared with younger counterparts.
Financial stresses appeared to increase substantially for participants as a length of time without access
to adequate paid employment and income increased.
I’m managing to pay rent, buy enough to eat, but eventually you start running into trouble. I can handle
driving an old van it does the job, but my tires are worn. If the police see it I could get into trouble, but
I can’t afford to fix it. (Colleen, mid-50s)
We had to pull back our spending, we learned to do without things. But the longer it went on the harder it
got especially with unexpected expenses. The fridge went, our budget can’t cope with any surprises. We
can’t afford for anything to go wrong. It was extremely stressful you can’t get by without a fridge. (Trudy,
For participants in this study, part-time or casual employment did not necessarily ameliorate
economic constraints. Saunders (2004) argues that full-time employment is required to
escape poverty and that labor market reforms undermining the full-time job market are likely to
I can no longer afford to keep living on the little bit of money my casual jobs pays. I need a full-time wage
that you can live off. (Maureen, early 60s)
When I’m able get some work, it’s unreliable, I can’t count on it to pay the bills. The hours I’m given
could mean the difference between losing the house or keeping it. (Greg, late 40s)
Indeed, Hartman (2002) argues that low-paid employment serves as a facade that works to conceal
Employment that does not meet the criteria of decent work, particularly casual or contingent
employment, is likely to be as stressful as unemployment (Butterworth, Leach, McManus, & Stans-
feld, 2013; Butterworth et al., 2011). This compelling longitudinal research by Butterworth and col-
leagues dispels the myth that “any job is a good job,” which is also disputed by the participant’s
With casual work a lot of people still say that any work is good work, because you get your foot in the
door. But this isn’t true anymore. Casual jobs these days are very unreliable and a road to nowhere. (Julie,
The trauma is not only isolated to the main breadwinner who is out of work. There are pernicious
effects on relationship quality that, in turn, diminish social and emotional well-being.
It’s a strain on the relationship too. It puts us under a strain because our needs are not being met. The con-
stant battling, it gets you down and you do start to take it out on each other a bit. (Heather, early 50s)
6Journal of Career Development XX(X)
Participants in the study also claimed that being unemployed had led to a decreased sense of control in
terms of agency restriction through disruption to an individual’s capacity to exercise control over
I don’t get to make choices; I can’t even afford to do the right thing. A car is a necessity, something you
need to get to interviews and work. (Colleen, mid-50s)
I’ve learned that money and work give you confidence. Take people’s job away and see what happens to
them—they lose their confidence overnight it takes your confidence away very quickly. Now I understand
how my son felt—when he was nineteen he tried and tried and just couldn’t get a job. But once he got a job
everything started to fall into place, he’s been fine ever since. (Robert, early 60s)
Prolonged lack of access to adequate paid employment among participants in this study appeared to
intensify negative impacts on their sense of optimism and volition.
I felt great when I started. I felt more confident. Just having a job was great something to do and having
money. But after a while being casual eats away at your confidence when you start to find that you’re not
making enough money to live ...when you start cutting back on basics like food, you know you’re in trou-
ble. (Suzie, late 40s)
I’m completely trapped. Everything stands still, day after day after day ...going nowhere, nothing to
look forward to, no hope, and no plans. (Phillip, late 50s)
The notion of volition is not unfamiliar to Australian culture and its notion of “have a go.” According
to social mores, a person will be supported and lauded for working toward his aspirations and, more-
over, to do so against the odds, the challenges, and the barriers put before him by circumstance and bad
luck. This is the idealized image of the “Aussie Battler.” The following comment highlights a cultural
tendency in affirming the traditional Australian male identity:
...as a bloke you’re expected to be the breadwinner, I feel inadequate. A job is a very big part of who you
are, it’s what you do. You’re a “nobody” when you don’t have a job, especially when you’re male. (Ste-
Despite these caricatures, Australian culture is tainted by the tall poppy syndrome (Feather, 1990),
manifest as disrespect for a person who rises above his or her class and stereotyped expectations. This
culture reviles “the Bludger,” manifest as disrespect for a person who, according to perceptions, falls
beneath his class as a result of his character (e.g., laziness or stupidity) or actions (e.g., not working
hard enough) only to draw on the resources of the system (e.g., the government-funded payment pro-
vided to unemployed persons) to which the middle and working class hold up with their hard-earned
pay and taxes. Only when she or he earnestly works against the system and the odds to earn again, will
she or he be lauded as an Aussie Battler and concomitantly absolved of the negative appellation of
“bludger.” Thus, the idea of a person aspiring and achieving within the constraints of his given context
is not unfamiliar to Australian culture.
Participants complained about frustrations of not feeling able to “move forward” with their lives and
not being able to make plans or progress beyond their current circumstances:
Kossen and McIlveen 7
There’s no future. You can’t have dreams, you can’t have goals, you can’t plan holidays, and you can’t
think about a new car, you can’t do anything. (Julie mid-40s)
This diminished future orientation is the obverse of the concern dimension of career adaptability.
There was evidence of gaining back some sense of the control dimension of career adaptability that
was counterbalanced by diminished concern for the future:
It doesn’t really worry me. I’ve got a trade, but I’d be happy to just see out my time as a laborer. You get less
pay but there’s less responsibility, less worries ...I’m not really ambitious at this stage. (Graham, mid-50s)
In terms of flexibility, there was an evident willingness among many participants to take lower level
positions in order to gain entry back into the workforce and gain some career control, a component of
Over the past four years, you name it, and I’ve gone for it, I’ve applied for laboring, sales work, car sales,
car detailing, chef’s jobs ...I’ve never really gone for anything that I thought I wasn’t able to do. I’ve tried
to be realistic. I never applied for higher jobs. (Bob, early 60s)
I’ll take whatever I can get. I’m not fussy and I don’t mind getting my hands dirty. Even a few days
laboring a week would be something, it’s better to be doing something and having some money coming
in than nothing at all. (Stephen, mid-40s)
While Bob has a preference for work with which he is most familiar, he like many participants said he
was still willing to take on “just about anything.”
In this sense, many participants expressed a willingness to discount their labor by taking on lower
level jobs as a strategy to regain entry into the workforce. This is evident when Phoebe makes the point
below that working would provide her with better opportunities for networking to help allow her to
“take something else up later.”
When I’ve asked for feedback on why I didn’t get the job, they replied, “we can’t understand why someone
of your skill level would apply for a job like this.” When I say to them “because I want a change, I feel like
getting out of management.” They don’t like the idea that you’re taking a job, that they believe is below
what you’ve done before. At that stage I was thinking—any job would help me, it would give me some
income. (Phoebe mid-40s)
Participants in this study overwhelmingly believed that they were employable in the market, which is
evident in their taking any form of work. Most felt that the increased life experience added value to
their knowledge and a depth to their understanding on a range of areas, such as how to relate to others
and tackle work tasks efficiently and effectively. They held strong and positive views about aging, par-
ticularly in relation to their beliefs that experience gained with age gave them a range of relative
We have years of experience under our belts - this gives us quite an advantage. We’ve got a lot of expe-
rience to draw from, when it comes to working out the best way to handle tricky situations. Experience adds
to our flexibility, it doesn’t reduce it. (Brenda, mid-50s)
I’ve spent my life developing and honing my skills as well as picking up new ones. I now have a better
perspective for understanding of people and situations. The stereotype that we can’t learn and adapt or that
we’re not interested is wrong. (Malcolm, mid-50s)
I think because of my years of experience, I am in my prime, I think I have more ability now than ever
before. I’ve got things I can pass onto the younger ones, but I can also learn from them too. Working
together gets the best results. (Kev, late 50s)
8Journal of Career Development XX(X)
While the views expressed by these participants reflect their own confidence, this contrasts with their
exasperation with the dispiriting belief that mature-aged workers count for very little in the eyes of
While positive personality and eagerness among many participants contribute positively to confidence
in skills and perceived ability, it appears that a marginalized employment profile ultimately limits their
opportunity and access to the labor market.
You do need to be very proactive, you need to use a lot of self-discipline when you’re out of work, or you
will fall into bad habits. I think it’s a real danger period and people really need to understand this ...I think
it’s important to explain this to people who get affected by unemployment, for the good of their own health,
I think this is really important information. (Graham, mid-50s)
I feel like I’m being left behind, other people are getting ahead and getting on with their lives they have
career goals and other personal goals ...and here I am, I have very little of that ...it’s pretty difficult.
(Greg, late 40s)
Some participants drew comfort from viewing their circumstances in comparison to people much
worse off, enabling them to develop a sense of appreciation and gratitude for their situation.
It’s true there’s always someone else worse off. People suffering with health problems and diseases like
cancer, people with bad injuries. So you’ve got to be thankful for what you have got. (Bruce, early 50s)
Some participants had begun to take on more reflective views about their life circumstances and to
ascribe their power, or lack of power, to agencies beyond their control.
...it makes sense, business want to make as much money as possible, then they not really going to want to
go on sharing it around ...pay fair wages. But that is the reality, and we have to deal with and live with that
reality. (Bevan mid-40s)
Participants did feel that workplaces had become increasingly exploitative underpinned by an eco-
nomic condition of drive for maximum profits. While on one hand, Maria sympathized with small
businesses using casual employment to trial workers before offering permanency, she also felt that
many large businesses abused casual employment arrangements by having people classified as casual
for positions that are really ongoing:
I’m not against putting people on as casuals but the wages should be higher for this. Small businesses really
struggle to pay people and make ends meet. I think casual work is a good way of seeing if someone’s going
to work out before making them permanent. But there are big companies that abuse the system by making
them casual when they should be permanent. (Maria, late 40s)
Kinsella-Taylor (2000) has also argued that large numbers of displaced mature-aged workers are being
forced to deplete their asset base: a process in conflict with the current policy aim of ensuring financial
independence into retirement. Comments reflecting this sense of injustice included:
Kossen and McIlveen 9
People my age have worked and paid taxes for a long time and yet we get no help just because of a few
assets. It’s not fair to expect people to spend their life savings before they can get any support. How is this
going to help me be independent in retirement? I thought the government wants us to be independent in
retirement to help them save money on pensions down the track .... (David, mid-50s)
There’s no incentive for people trying to get ahead with money to help you with retirement because you
get penalized for having savings but rewarded with welfare to help you if you haven’t saved, this is very
unfair. (Phoebe, mid-40s)
Not only are people in these kinds of jobless circumstances ineligible for a social service income, they
constitute a large proportion of those in the category of hidden unemployed.
Participants drew on an appreciation of their social supports as a means of maintaining positivity in
It’s important to stay optimistic and realize what you do have. When I think about it I’m not really that
poorly off, because I have a beautiful family, a terrific husband and a funny old dog. (Sally, early 60s)
You have to start thinking about all of the good things you do have otherwise you get sucked up by all of
the negatives. I’ve got a loving family, while many others have to face these things all on their own. (Phil-
lip, late 50s)
Participants noted that social networks in relation to employment contacts diminish quickly after
I applied for about 50 different jobs, but it’s hard, when you lose a job, you lose a lot of friends: people who
can help with getting a job. I’d take on any job to give me the opportunity to network and then take up
something else later. (Phoebe, mid-40s)
I was able to keep up with some of the ladies I used to work with. I asked them to keep an eye out for me
for any job opportunities they see come up. We used to catch up over coffee but that dropped off. It’s just
the way it goes, when you no longer work with people you lose contact. When jobs come up they’ll prob-
ably have forgotten me. (Rachel, mid-40s)
Regretting the deprivation of latent and manifest benefits of employment (Hoare & Machin, 2010;
Jahoda, 1982), Phillip stated,
When you have the job you don’t realize the many ways you are rewarded besides the pay packet. You have
the company of other people—you develop friendships. You get satisfaction from the work you are doing
you get satisfaction from working as a part of the team and the gain when you see goals reached and you
know that your contribution is appreciated. (Phillip, late 50s)
Indeed, it is evident that long-term unemployment and marginalization can lead individuals to remove
and disengage from a world they see as beyond their control.
It’s much harder to socialize when you’re out of work, when people socialize just about everybody “talks
shop.” You can’t “talk shop” when you no longer have a ‘shop’ to talk about. (Greg, late 40s)
I find social occasions and meeting new people really difficult because when people ask, “What do you
do for a living?” Well what do I say to that? “That I’m a house husband?” It’s really difficult when you’re a
bloke out of work. A woman can say, “I’m looking after the kids while my husband works.” (Stephen,
10 Journal of Career Development XX(X)
While this kind of resigned adaptation can lead to some improvement in psychological well-being, it
can also lead to reductions in skills and personal autonomy and perceptions of self-worth normally
regarded as psychologically unhealthy.
The subjective experiences of competitiveness and work intensification also emerged as a topic in par-
ticipants’ interviews. McQueen argues that this kind of competitive work culture alienates employees,
as it creates an environment in which “every worker is confronted by every other worker as a
competitor” (2001, p. 13). Competition between casual workers to “win” work also emerged as a major
theme in Pocock, Prosser, and Bridge’s (2004) study. In this sense, the casualization of labor, including
the proliferation of other nonpermanent forms of employment, may play a significant role in the inten-
sification of work. Pocock et al. refer to this form of work intensification as insecurity driven effort
which is, in essence, a productivity strategy based on fear brought on by the threat of job security and
insufficient income that would result when a worker loses hours of work on offer. Participants’ com-
ments below reflect experiences of both insecurity and work intensification:
You’re working under the pressure of always trying to outdo the others to make sure you keep your job. The
casuals copped the worst [work pressure] because they don’t have any job security. Every day the manager
would walk past ...“What are your targets for the day?” (Heather, early 50s)
You have to make yourself look impressive. [If] people doubt your ability you’re on the back foot.
You’re always trying to impress everyone so they support you, so you get picked for more work. Living
life in a state of never ending stress, it’s not a good work situation and makes my life quite horrible. (Trudy,
When you’re working as a casual you’re always in a state of worry because you could lose your job at
any time. All casuals compete with each other to keep their jobs and get enough hours ...Your worth is
always in question, being so dispensable is very hard on your confidence. Your job can be taken away from
you at any minute ...constantly living with fear and not much chance of moving into a permanent job.
(Suzie, late 40s)
The present research sought to determine whether the factors considered as antecedents to decent
work, as posited in the PWT (i.e., predictors, mediators, and moderators), are relevant to the experi-
ences of persons who do not have decent work. Inductive analysis of the narratives of the 32 unem-
ployed participants in this study reveals evidence for each antecedent factor in the PWT. Thus, the
present study provides an affirmative response to the initial research question, “Is the PWT concep-
tually useful for understanding the experience of unemployment?” Furthermore, Australia is similar
to the United States in many respects; however, there are significant cultural, historical, and economic
differences that make distinguish the two nations. Thus, the present findings provide the first support
for the PWT in a cultural context different to its original.
Blustein (2013) and others (Blustein, Olle, Connors-Kellgren, & Diamonti, 2016) argue that decent
work (International Labour Office, 2015) is a human right. Indeed, the latent and manifest benefits of
employment (Hoare & Machin, 2010; Jahoda, 1982) and working are a source of mental health and
well-being (Blustein, 2008; Modini et al., 2016). The evocative expressions of the participants in the
current study affirm the psychological injury—the trauma—of unemployment and the secondary
trauma of the indignity conflated with the need for and use of social services. The findings of the pres-
ent study affirm the vital function of decent work for those who do not have it.
Kossen and McIlveen 11
While current psychological perspectives of unemployment (Wanberg, 2012) remain relevant, the
present study affirms the PWT perspective that the mediators career adaptability and volition. In addi-
tion, the study affirms the relevance of the moderators: proactive personality, critical consciousness,
social support, and subjective experiences of economic conditions. It may be the case that career adapt-
ability is diminished by periods of unemployment (Maggiori et al., 2013); however, the PWT’s pro-
position, that there may be utility in the PWT’s moderators, such as critical consciousness (Diemer
& Hsieh, 2008) or social support (Milner et al., 2016), being enhanced and recruited to buffer against
the negative effects of the predictors, economic constraints, and marginalization, on activities aimed at
acquiring decent work.
Blustein (2006) asserted vocational psychology provides limited attention to the phenomena of
unemployment and underemployment. Furthermore, Blustein (2006) suggested that research and prac-
tice should be “experience-near” (p. 238) so as to enable a better understanding of peoples’ experience
of their travails. The original research (Kossen, 2008) and the present research are a positive response
to Blustein’s exhortation to close the gap between researcher and participant. We believe that it is the
qualitative nature of the research design that enables this closure and being experience-near to the phe-
nomenal worlds of the participants.
Limitations and Future Directions
The current findings are an in-depth report of the presence of PWT antecedent factors identified with an
archival data set, but they do not reveal the putative valence and directionality of the relations among
these factors. Hypothetically, there are mediating pathways between the predictors and decent work that
may be affected by the moderators, such as proactive personality. For example, participants in the present
study had expressed positive thoughts and beliefs (e.g., proactive personality) but were nonetheless
unemployed. The complexity of the relations among the antecedent factors may reflect conditional caus-
ality in their being necessary, but not sufficient, for decent work. Latent growth modeling may tease out
the valence and directions of the PWT’s propositions. Notwithstanding the contribution that quantitative
modeling can make to articulating relations among the factors within the PWT, we encourage other
researchers to engage in qualitative research to better understand the phenomenology of the factors
within the theory. The findings are limited to the experiences of mature-aged individuals. Younger
individuals’ interpretations may be quite different due to their norms and expectations.
The effects of unemployment on health and well-being make it a public health problem of virtual
pandemic proportions. Although nations experience fluctuations in their unemployment rates, the
effects unemployment have on any one person may be devastating. In a world of work in constant flux,
new psychological theories that account for dynamic systems can offer perspectives that inform policy
and practices to ameliorate the wrath of unemployment. The present findings are evidence of the
PWT’s utility for research into the experience of unemployment, which is the ostensible antithesis
of the PWT’s centerpiece: decent work.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
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Chris Kossen is a senior lecturer in public relations and communication at the University of Southern Queensland.
He earned his PhD in sociology (aging and employment marginalization) at James Cook University, Australia. He
is primarily a qualitative researcher with interests in issues of aging and employment and the impact of employ-
ment marginalization on older workers. His scholarly works include an Australian textbook, Communicating for
Success (Kossen, Kiernan & Lawrence, 2013). He enjoyed his time as an exchange lecturer in the Netherlands.
Peter McIlveen is an associate professor and leads the research team ACCELL, the Australian Collaboratory for
Career Employability and Learning for Living (www.accell-research.com), at the University of Southern Queens-
land. His research is focused on career development, employability, and professional identity. He is a psychologist
and member of the Australian Psychological Society’s College of Counselling Psychologists. When not working,
he is otherwise engaged in all things gastronomic.
Kossen and McIlveen 15