Job insecurity can alter a person’s political attitudes, according to new longitudinal research

A study published in Applied Psychology: An International Review offers evidence that job insecurity can disrupt a person’s identity and ultimately affect their political attitudes.

Job insecurity poses numerous psychological consequences, affecting a person’s well-being and also their job performance. Some theorists have further speculated a link between job insecurity and political attitudes.

“As a work-psychologist I am interested in the meaning of work for people. Work is the place we spent most of our life at, so to me it is natural to presume that the experience of working will also affect our feeling, thinking, acting outside work, in our wider life,” said study author Eva Selenko

“Work is such a central part in most people’s lives: it pays the bills, yes, but it does much more than that, it can tell people who they are and where they stand in relation to others society.”

“In this article we explore what happens to that sense of self when work become insecure, and what this in particular means for how people think about society in the broadest sense (we actually measured attitudes towards group equality, and self-declared political standing on a left-right continuum). There is a lot of public debate that speculates about the role of employment conditions on political thinking and voting,” Selenko explained.

The researchers suggest that job insecurity involves a threat to identity that can lead to changes in political beliefs. They posit that feeling insecure about one’s job leads to fears of losing one’s identity as a member of the employed, and fears about gaining the undesired identity of an unemployed person.

“These identity effects,” the researchers say, “are deemed to activate cognitive and affective processes (in the form of derogating others and more narrow minded thinking), which will impact political views, as expressed by peoples’ antiegalitarianism and their self-declared political standing on a leftwing-rightwing continuum.”

To investigate the interplay between job insecurity, identity, and political attitudes, a longitudinal study was conducted. A starting sample of 969 employed UK residents took part in a survey that involved four waves — each one four months apart. The survey assessed participants’ job insecurity using statements like, “Chances are I will soon lose my job.” Additionally, the questionnaire measured subjects’ identification with the working population and identification with the unemployed population, as a means of addressing work-related identity threat. Finally, subjects’ attitudes towards group equality and political standing were measured.

The analysis looked for relationships between assessments from one time point to the next, to explore predictive roles. As expected, scoring higher in job insecurity was negatively related to identification with the working population at a subsequent time point, suggesting that job insecurity indeed posed a threat to work-related identity. However, increased job insecurity was not related to identification with the unemployed.

“Contrary to the expectations, job insecurity did not activate people’s future feared self as unemployed people (although there was a correlation within time points). People who were more job insecure did not feel different in their identification as unemployed persons over time,” the researchers explain.

As the authors hypothesized, lower identification with the working population was related to an increase in antiegalitarian views over time. Contrary to expectations, increased identification with the unemployed was related to decreased antiegalitarian views, and decreased political orientation to the right, over time.

“Most generally our study shows that a person’s work situation has an impact on how they think politically. This is because work affects a sense of who you are, and that sense in turn affects how people think about others,” Selenko told PsyPost.

“People who were more job insecure also felt threatened in their working identity. Although people still had a job, they already felt they were less part of the working population. This in turn influenced people’s attitudes towards creating equality between groups in society.”

“People who felt more threatened in their identity were less in favour of equal treatment of different groups in society. This is quite interesting — it suggests that people who feel less part of the collective become less accepting and tolerant of others, different to themselves. This was not related to self-declared political standing, so a threatened identity did not lead people to become more left- or more right-wing, just less tolerant towards others,” Selenko said.

The study measured identification with the unemployed but did not assess whether subjects actually saw themselves becoming unemployed in the future. “This is the first study of this kind, it has been conducted in the UK, and although the results are robust and time-stable, we would need to verify these effects in other samples and other countries,” Selenko said.

“I would expect them to be similar, because we test quite fundamental mechanisms, but it could be that people who value work less for example, feel less threatened by job insecurity in their identity. It could also be that in a situation where loads of people are job insecure, people might still feel part of the overall collective and less threatened in their identity as members of the working population.”

“I think our study shows that work indeed can have an impact on how people think in regards to others in society, even if this does not always reflect on a left-right political continuum. Policy makers would be well-advised to acknowledge that job insecurity can have a wider societal consequences on how people think, feel and act towards others,” Selenko added.

The study, “How job insecurity affects political attitudes: Identity threat plays a role”, was authored by Eva Selenko and Hans De Witte.

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