Fear as Motivator: Unemployment Edition

08/11/2011

If you have at all paid attention to the Right during this economic downturn, you have noticed their firm disbelief in the idea of a social safety net.

“Entitlement programs”, “wasted money”, and so on. In their eyes, welfare and other safety net programs in place to take care of the unemployed, the unable to work, and those who are down and out merely breeds laziness in those who partake in it and actually does harm to the employment rate.

In their eyes, the unemployment rate is the way it is because of the laziness of “moochers” stealing the hard-earned money of the “productive class”.

Now, all of this is patent bullshit. Hell, at this point of political debate, the fact that it comes from a right-winger at all is already a giant clue that the argument has no connection with reality or sound policy.

We could talk about how UI and other aid to the poor have some of the highest impacts per dollar spent of any stimulative expenditure. UI has a $1.64 economic impact for each dollar spent, meaning the government is actually gaining money in expanded economic activity and thus taxes paid back when they “waste money” on the poor.

We could point out that countries with a strong social safety net have some of the more robust economies. Countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway were able to much easily ride out the global economic collapse than countries with less robust safety nets. Scandanavia in general has one of the highest rates of entrepeneurship and has actual class mobility, where the ability to form a start-up and succeed is much easier than in the states. This fantastic article from Inc Magazine points out that the presence of a robust safety net allows those with ideas for businesses to take a risk and start a business for they know that if they fail, they won’t be ruined. Shockingly, seeing as how most new business ventures do fail, having that not mean potential death encourages people to take a risk and be innovative. Robust welfare systems instead of breeding cultures of waste and laziness show the highest rates of innovation and some of the robuster economies in the world.

We could even point out that in the type of capitalist system we have that there is a minimum unemployment rate that the economy is not allowed to dip below. Thus, there must always be at minimum at least 5% of the working population out of work at any time and that’s not counting those who are unable to work or those who have taken themselves out of the workforce entirely (retirees, full-time homemakers, people unable to work for physical or mental reasons). This is necessary for the economy that there always be people out of work, looking for work that isn’t yet there. Raw empathy alone would argue that if we are always going to have less work than people looking for work that two things would be true.

1) That such people should be given a basic ability to pay rent, food, and other necessities.
2) That the image of the jobless as lazy and unwilling to grab the plentiful jobs that must exist is fundamentally untrue.

Furthermore, we could point out that our current economy does not have a problem of companies seeking to hire and being unable to find takers, but rather companies refusing to hire and using the downturn as a reason to become even more selective in hiring, looking to hire the recently laid off of rival companies and seeking those with 20 years experience for entry-level jobs, thus making it nearly impossible for even the hard-working to break into even basic level employment.

And indeed, I have pointed all this out, but it’s not what I want to focus on in this post.

Sure, they are wrong at nearly every level, but let us look just at the most basic assumption.

That fear, fear of unemployment, is the greatest motivator for looking for work. And furthermore, that motivation of lacking a safety net is the only thing preventing complete surrender and slacking off

Let us address the second of those points first.

The thing is, people want to work. They want to feel useful and like they are contributing rather than feeling devalued, a drain on society, or worthless. People want to work to feel external validation for their worthiness and will seek it out even when the pay isn’t dramatically different. Those who don’t do so tend to find their validation in the self and for the most part they will try and find worth in activities they choose themselves such as personal projects.

In many ways, the fact that the “poor people are lazy and won’t get work unless forced” meme is so seductive to so many is proof that a critical American text has gone unread by too large a section of the population. That text is The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.

The titular “Feminine Mystique” is the longing of the housewife to engage in activities that are valued. Since housework and childcare were devalued both by men and society, a stay-at-home homemaker felt infantilized, devalued, massively depressed, and almost manic at the repetitive chores and lack of purpose. Even today, someone stuck at home often has a mental weight on them and is in need of clear delineators of when their “work day” begins and ends, frequent release to the outside world, and important hobbies to retain sanity.

There may be a few who take advantage of a generous system, but for the most part, people who are able to work in any system will do so, because the mental weight of being an unemployed layabout is often emotionally crippling as the Feminine Mystique painfully points out in harrowing story after harrowing story. Such experiences are not gendered.

And now let’s address that first part. Are people more motivated by fear than other methods to search for work?

Well, no, not really. We can look to countless psychological reports that fear actually shuts down the ability of the brain to think at its peak ability. Furthermore, fear and dire potential consequences often induce strong boats of depression and despair and as anyone who has suffered depression can tell you, depression means immensely lowered energy reserves, longer sleep schedules, and so on. This means less time available and less energy available to send out applications and continue job searches. Add this with businesses’ desire to hire happy workers and the fact that job searching is an emotionally tumultuous and unpleasant activity and one can see that making it even more harrowing and difficult is about the same level of good idea as beating an abuse victim to try and stop them from flashing back.

I can definitely attest to this personally. I have kept putting out applications and chasing leads, because I genuinely wish to work, but such work has been immensely difficult emotionally because the complete lack of available of safety net that means a damn makes search incredibly difficult.

For the last year, I have been gripped by the fear, dread, and panic that conservatives argue make one a better job searcher. As such, I have drifted into deep depressions. Each job search and each failure feels more like a personal evaluation on my worthiness of life (a deliberate desire of the conservative model, the unemployed’s ability to survive is directly related to their ability to get someone to hire them and hire them for living wage). So after the thousands upon thousands of applications I have turned in in the last year and two months, the evaluation has become one of absolute meaningless. My mind has often betrayed me. I have become unable to do anything but search for jobs and weep for months at a time, feeling guilty even for simple self-care procedures or taking any time in the pursuit of projects that could even make me some small income if I were to finish them. I have repeatedly over the course of this campaign been reduced to complete breakdown, unable to do anything but cry and hold myself tight. And I am ashamed to admit that thoughts of suicide have certainly been making their attacks on my psyche.

Cause the thing about high consequences is that it doesn’t motivate one to grab hard on the tightrope and battle the angry horde back onto some semblance of balance. It motivates one to surrender, to give up to the hopelessness of a cause and accept the seemingly inescapable fate.

I don’t say these things out of desire for pity, but to point out that it has only been through my will, my desire to do this for myself that I have been able to send out any applications, despite all the rejections, because the mental torture of having no safety net makes each action so much harder than it needs to be.

Indeed, very recently, I have been at my most productive in the long year I have been unemployed. I had been receiving aid from a relative and I had just begun to believe in it as a makeshift safety net. The pressure finally lessened and I was able to put forth applications and simultaneously work on two side projects that I have been very excited about pursuing and which could make me some small bit of money if I am able to complete them to my standards.

For the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel like a zombie, barely shambling forward on nothing but momentum, but someone genuinely excited and full of spirit. The mental energy wasted on raw fear of the future had been alleviated and allowed to actually work on productive acts for my improvement.

With a safety net, I was able to truly be motivated.

Not just doing it because I had to, fighting every mental scar, and relying on my personal will, but with full emotional and mental batteries actually working on real and important problems rather than simply focusing on base survival.

Things were easier and I had an easier time doing the activities for my future good when I didn’t have to worry where next month’s groceries or rent was going to come from.

This is a lesson that Scandanavia and most first-world nations have already realized. That a safety net doesn’t make tightrope walkers jump and instead makes it easier for the walkers to perform their maneuvers instead of being unbalanced by the fear of death if they should fall.

Fear doesn’t motivate, it only cripples.

And I feel that again.

My relative will be unable to continue helping me in future months. Don’t worry about me, I think we should be able to survive fine and I’ve got a few more months of aid to turn into desperate minimal savings.

I’m not saying this to request aid or pity, but rather to note that with that news, all the comfortable motivation I felt has fled and I’m back to the same scrap and scrape feeling I had been for a year, relying on will to continue forward and fighting mental and emotional betrayal by my mind to cloud my ability to work on both applications and my own projects.

Having the feeling however illusionary of a reliable safety net and now having the feeling of a complete lack of safety net again, I can understand viscerally how such “motivation” doesn’t motivate. How it demotivates, breaks, and destroys.

The right, as they always are in their arguments about society and human motivation, are full of shit.

You didn’t need me to say this, but I hope this further illustrates how every petty, mean assumption they bring to bullshit like the Debt Crisis and the so-called “Spending Crisis” are woefully lacking in veracity.

These are people’s lives, who are being asked to die, who are suffering until eventual bankruptcy and death, because a bunch of sociopaths think that a lack of a safety net will make people search harder for non-existant jobs.

This. Should. Not. Be.

I don’t care what else should be true, but that at least, is the minimum our empathy should expect. That such a system should not exist and no one should have to go without food or shelter because someone thinks they’ll be “more motivated” without them.

2 Responses to “Fear as Motivator: Unemployment Edition”

  1. madove said

    Thank you so much for this balanced analysis and sharing your personal experience.
    While I am convinced that the political idea behind removing social nets is about keeping workers and unemployed people silenced by fear resp. shame, there are still many supporters who believe in the motivational benefits of succeed-or-die.
    From my personal experience, and anything I’ve seen, heard and studied, this is simply not true and it all boils down to what you wrote:
    Fear doesn’t motivate, it only cripples.

  2. One of the right-wing myths about the unemployed is their status is because of a conscious effort not to be employed.

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