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What’s bad about unemployment and what should we do about it?

When we analyse the justifiability of different education policies as well as various governmental interventions in the job market, we typically do so on the assumption that there is something bad about unemployment – indeed, there are many things bad about unemployment.  Whilst this assumption is no doubt correct, I suspect that it is often helpful to be more precise about what exactly is bad about unemployment. This is because each of these bads may admit of very different solutions.

It is common to begin by noting that unemployment can be stigmatising, such that individuals who are unemployed are subject to others’ negative attitudes. This can be experienced as disrespectful and damaging to one’s self-confidence. It is significant that proponents of these attitudes typically defend their views on moralistic grounds: “The unemployed should be stigmatised because they are sponging off of the state – off of others’ efforts!”

Even if the underlying moral belief were true, these stigmatising attitudes would remain unjustified. In part, this is for the familiar reason that people are unemployed not because they don’t want to work, but instead because they lack the opportunities to do so. There are also many revealing inconsistencies here: public vitriol is rarely directed at middle-class stay-at-home parents in the same way that it is directed at those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This suggests that there are other forces at play.

Putting these issues aside, we are left with two choices. The first is to pursue measures that increase employment opportunities so that fewer people are subject to the kind of stigmatisation that I have mentioned. This is the route that is most commonly favoured. Whilst there are certain benefits to this approach, it has certain costs as well. In particular, those who are likely ‘to benefit’ from these measures may well end up with toilsome jobs on very low pay. Indeed, it is not at all clear to me that unemployment is much less bad at all.

The second option is to pursue measures designed to change public attitudes about unemployment. For example, we could encourage people to see unemployment as an acceptable life-style choice, which we ought not to stigmatise. Perhaps it is a choice that we may even welcome, in much the same way that many parents do when their child decides to take a gap year.

A connected part of this proposal is that we try to move away from defining individuals in terms of their roles within the job market. It should be possible for individuals to earn the recognition of their peers and fellows citizens even if unemployed. Again, many people’s attitudes are curiously inconsistent here:  middle-class stay-at-home parents typically receive a kind of recognition that is often denied to unemployed parents from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

In short, I am calling for the liberalisation of attitudes towards an individual’s decision not to work. Plainly, education has a fundamentally important role to play in realising this possibility. Of course, this is not to say that we can be confident of effecting change quickly.

Is this solution a silver bullet? No. Obviously, even if public attitudes towards unemployment became much less persecuting, unemployment may remain bad for several reasons. First and foremost, unemployment deprives individuals of an additional valuable source of income. My more modest claim is only that changing public attitudes in the way I have suggested would be an important step in the right direction.

Tom Parr

Tom is a Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Essex. He is interested in all areas of value theory, as well as playing darts and drinking Carling.



(One of) Effective Altruism’s blind spot(s), or: why moral theory needs institutional theory


Valuing Aims vs. Valuing Implementation, on wedding day organisation and assessing ‘impact’


  1. Tom, I am very sympathetic to the idea that we should liberalise attitudes to decisions not to work. As a matter of how to respond to unemployment, though, I wonder about the bearing of where we are starting from. Consider, as you mention in the last paragraph, the bad of unemployment depriving individuals of income. Now imagine, as I suspect is the case, that negative attitudes to unemployment are deeply embedded and will take much time and resources to change. In this scenario, the approach you propose may mean the unemployed simply continuing to suffer the bads of the situation, at least for quite some time and perhaps not still at working age when the benefits of your proposal are realised. In this context, might it not be better to use the resources to create employment opportunities to provide, at least, some benefit? Perhaps this strategy is even more appealing if we think about committing these resources to improving employment conditions, which, I suspect, is what many in this area are trying to pursue (e.g., those who campaign against zero-hours contracts)?

    Put another way, I wonder if your strategy will have most benefit in the long-term, but little benefit for those currently unemployed? If so, is there a worry that it might sacrifice the latter for the benefit of those who benefit later? (Similar issues were discussed in relation to Pierre-Etienne’s post a few weeks ago – http://justice-everywhere.org/democracy/sacrificed-for-hope/)

    • Tom Parr

      I think that you’re right to point that there are other strategies that we can pursue that are more likely to mitigate the badness of employment for some people. The case of campaigning against zero-hours contracts is a good one. However, I don’t see these as mutually exclusively: we can condemn both zero-hours contracts and illiberal attitudes towards work.

      I take the point that, though, that, since we have limited political capital, we must choose our targets more carefully. Whilst this, no doubt affects what we should publicly campaign for, it doesn’t seem to me to affect what I think in my personal life. I think this is an important point to make.

      Finally, you seem somewhat sceptical about the possibility of attitudes changing very quickly. Perhaps in this respect I am more optimistic than you. I’m inclined to think that social attitudes can change very quickly (though, as you say, perhaps not quickly enough to make much of a difference to those currently unemployed). Here, my views are influenced strongly by Appiah’s The Honor Code.

      In short, perhaps there is not much disagreement after all!

  2. Thanks for this Tom. As Andrew, Im sympathetic to your idea of liberalising the attitudes towards unemployment. But, I’d like to hear about more on what you have in mind . You suggest that individuals should be able to earn the recognition of their peers even when unemployed. Do you think that this recognition would nevertheless be grounded in individuals’ social contribution or is that also a constraint you want to reject? And do you think that recognition would only be about non-stigmatising or would it also give society reasons to give people the effective freedom to be unemployed (‘subsidise’ the choice of unemployment)?

    I ask because it seemed to me that your worry about stigmatising the unemployed is directed at those individuals who are unemployed either because they do not have the opportunity to work or because the opportunities on offer are demeaning. If that is the main worry, then I agree with Andrew that increasing opportunities and improving working conditions are crucial steps to take. A basic income policy would also be a very appropriate solution. (I guess Pierre Etienne can talk more about that :))

    • Tom Parr

      Thanks for these great questions, Siba. I think that a lot depends on what you mean by ‘social contribution’. I’m sympathetic to the idea that we should do our bit to create and uphold just political institutions (say, by being good democratic citizens) and there is a sense in which this counts as a kind of social contribution. I’m less sympathetic to the idea that we should tie recognition/status to social contribution, understood more narrowly. My intuition here is that there can be something wonderful about not having to serve others, and that we would miss out on this if we all felt duty bound to make this kind of social contribution. What are you thoughts here?

      • Kasper Ossenblok

        Tom, could you say something about the universal basic income proposal (as Siba suggested) and how this idea might/might not fit with the ideas expressed in this post? Do you bite arguments they might use? I see two such arguments related to your post, but plausibly you see others as well. First, a UBI might liberalize the attitudes towards unemployment as one of the main reasons to defend it precisely is to make free choices about how to spend your time (be it employed or unemployed). In case this argument is publicly known and shared, a UBI might be more efficient than educational (or other) policies. Second, it is in the definition of a UBI that everyone will receive it. Thus, the view that the unemployed are parasites as they live of the welfare created by the employed might fade away. Also the employed receive the income.

        To be clear, I don’t defend what I wrote above, it’s just that these are possible arguments made by UBI defenders that draw on similar ideas as you express in your post. So I wonder what you make of them?

        • Tom Parr

          That sounds right to me, Kasper. I’m a supporter of an unconditional basic income, for a wide variety of reasons. One of these reasons relates to the effect that it may have upon people’s attitudes towards the decision not to work. Thanks for prompting me to clarify!

  3. Fay Niker

    Tom, thanks for this post. It brings to mind Nussbaum’s argument against social contract doctrines in ‘Frontiers of Justice’ (2006). One strand of this argument is that understanding social cooperation as a means of achieving mutual advantage tends to result in non-productive members (or, those traditionally viewed as non-productive members) being stigmatized in the way in which you describe. So, might it be the case that the current and problematic attitudes are a product, to some extent at least, of the way in which we conceive of the benefits and aims of social cooperation; and, in turn, when it comes to changing public attitudes about unemployment (which, like the others, I am sympathetic to doing), might part of the answer be to conceive of these benefits and aims in a more socialized (and moralized) way – for Nussbaum this is provided by the capabilities approach, but we might think of other ways of doing this? I am not offering this as my own position; however, it seems to me that this might be one type of response to your ‘call’ for the liberalization of attitudes towards work decisions – one that may be off-the-mark for various reasons, but nevertheless is an interesting claim to consider, I think.

    • Tom Parr

      This is an interesting possibility, Fay. One of the things that I didn’t consider in the post is the way in which social attitudes may be a product of other things, such as the economic structure of society. I think the clearest defence of this idea can be found in Marx or, more precisely, in Cohen’s book on Marx. To be honest, I’m really not sure what to make of this possibility. I suspect it relies upon sociological conjecture, which I’m certainly not qualified to evaluate. I wonder if there are many empirical investigations into how attitudes towards unemployment vary under different economic regimes…

  4. Lisa Herzog

    Hi Tom, thanks for this interesting post. I think I agree with the general line, but I’ve been musing a bit about what exactly the stigmatizing attitudes are and how they differ between classes. I guess part of what is going on is as follows: if middle class people take time off, the assumption is that they are doing something “valuable” with their time, whether volunteering, traveling, reading, or “realizing themselves” or “taking time to think” or whatever (with parents, there seems to be an analogous assumption for what they do with their kids). Whereas the prejudice against poorer people seems to be that they can’t possibly be doing something like that, they must be wasting their time and be lazy.
    If this diagnosis is roughly correct, there seem to be two paths to take. The first path is to fight against the prejudice that rich people have better ways of spending their non-work time than poor people. This seems a straightforward element of the fight against class-based prejudice in general. (There are some tricky questions here about whether or not to assume that certain activities are somehow “more valuable” than others, but these would probably be tangential as the line would not overlap with class divisions). The second path would be to challenge the very idea that human beings should engage in “valuable” activities at all, and to argue for the value of “doing nothing” or doing things that may appear trivial or whatever. In today’s world, I have some sympathies for this second path, simply as a counterweight to prevailing tendencies. But I’m not sure I would want to travel it all the way down, and give up any notion of distinguishing between different kinds of activities (which does NOT mean that I would want the state to mandate any kinds of activities – but it might facilitate more valuable ones, for example). Maybe I’m a crypto-perfectionist?
    In any case, I’d be interested to hear which of these two paths (or maybe completely different ones) you had in mind!

    • Tom Parr

      This analysis sounds spot on to me, Lisa. Thanks for clarifying my views!

      I’m inclined to think that the state should not form judgments about what qualifies as valuable or disvaluable use of an individual’s time and that, for this reason, it ought not to appeal to ideas like ‘valuable use of time’ when justifying policies. This puts pressure on the two paths you mention, in so far as it implies that we should think about lots of these issues without relying on ideas like ‘valuable use of time’. Perhaps in this respect I am more liberal than most.

      As a side point, I’d be interested to know what you mean by ‘crypto-perfectionist’. (I suspect that we mean quite different things by ‘perfectionism’ and ‘anti-perfectionism’.) However, this is probably not the place to talk about that. Another time perhaps!

  5. Will

    Quick comment:

    I think you need to be clearer about the distinction between unemployment (those actively searching for a job and capable of starting one in the next two weeks) and inactivity (your stay at home parents).

    I also think you’re mischaracterising most peoples resentment in your favour. People principally object to what they perceive to be people gaming the system attempting to collect unemployment benefits while not attempting to actually gain employment (i.e. avoiding doing their ‘fair share’ by contributing to the collective good).

    The correct intervention here is to educate people about the role that luck plays in labour market outcomes. Also there are wider discussions to be had surrounding the need for individuals to be able to reject “bad” jobs (obviously linking to the decline of unions etc.).

  6. Hi Tom,

    I fully agree that there shouldn’t be extra stigma on those who are unemployed, whether involuntary or not. A liberal society should be one in which people are encouraged not to adversely judge and stigmatise others for their situation or choices.

    That would not require any kind of analysis about whether it is better to have a basic income or guaranteed work programme. (For the record I believe the latter is the superior policy as long as we don’t have robots doing all our work for us, but not because I believe it is wrong for people to choose leisure over work. Rather it is because if people choose leisure then society as a whole misses out on the work that they would have otherwise done.)

    Will has made a good suggestion that this might seem to violate a fundamental feeling that people have about free-riders – people getting away with something are cheating and affronting those who do the “correct” things.

    One further thought is that the reasoning behind it relates to a desert theory of justice. Such a theory is inappropriate with regard to economic distribution in a market society for reasons that Sen enumerated in his 1982 NY Review of Books essay ‘just deserts.’ Political philosophers should therefore argue against such views. Should doing so be counted as ‘impact’?

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