As the economy emerges from the recession, headlines such as “unemployment rate at record low” or “thousands of jobs added to the economy” fill the news sources. These are seemingly great news—not just for the economy, but also for individuals and their families who have experienced or could experience unemployment.
Sociologists and economists have shown that jobless men suffer from psychological problems and depression, but the damage doesn’t stop there—so do their spouses. Likewise, women feel unhappier when they lose their jobs. Although they suffer these effects alone; the well-being of their male spouses doesn’t change when they lose their job.
What the headlines don’t tend to report is that the new jobs behind the declining unemployment rates are often temporary. At best, they are one- or two-year fixed-term positions, or worse, they are casual, seasonal, or offered via a temp agency. So it is questionable how much better it is to have a temporary job that will end soon, compared to being jobless.
In a recently published study, I show that temporary jobs are at least as bad as unemployment for the well-being of individuals and their spouses. Among a nationally representative sample of married and cohabiting heterosexual British couples, temporary work experienced by the male spouses, just like unemployment, had a negative effect on female spouses’ psychological well-being and life satisfaction. Likewise, women’s temporary employment spilled over and negatively impacted their male spouses’ psychological well-being. However, women’s unemployment did not have this same effect on their male spouses.
Temporality brings more stress than unemployment
Social scientists have long shown that a lack of control over stressful events, such as job loss, creates harmful feelings of uncertainty and ambiguity. Research has also shown that the impact of fear of job loss, especially when it’s experienced for a prolonged period, is greater than the impact of the job loss itself.
Temporary workers experience higher rates of job insecurity than other workers. For example, in the United Kingdom, about 25 to 50 percent of non-permanent workers reported that they feared they would lose their jobs in the next six months, as opposed to only 5 percent of workers with open-ended or permanent contracts.
This job insecurity leads to stress and anxiety, which take a toll on the psychological well-being of men and their female spouses. Thus, like unemployment, temporary jobs damage the psychological well-being and life satisfaction of men, and this negative impact spills over and harms the well-being of their spouses, too.
What is unique about temporary work is that temporary jobs held by women negatively impact the male spouses’ psychological well-being, as well. Male spouses of female temporary employees report lower levels of psychological well-being, even though the women in these jobs seem to be happy. This is very interesting, because men’s psychological well-being or life satisfaction are not affected by their female spouses’ unemployment. Although unemployed women experience sharp falls in their well-being, their male spouses’ level of well-being remains unchanged.
Women’s temporary job affects their husband’s well-being
Why does women’s temporary work, but not their unemployment, harm their male spouses’ well-being? For one thing, many men prefer for their female spouses not to spend a lot of time in the labor market. The level of well-being among men partnered with unemployed women is fairly similar to the level among men whose spouses are out of the labor market. However, temporary work implies reduced household hours for women, which may negatively impact the men’s psychological well-being.
What is more, women’s temporary jobs have a significantly stronger negative impact than women’s permanent jobs on their male spouses’ well-being. So the effect cannot be just about working outside the home. It seems to be about the type of work women do. One potential explanation is the generally poor quality of temporary jobs held by women.
Women tend to be overrepresented in lower-quality types of temporary jobs. For example, in 2012, 64 percent of casual, seasonal, and agency temporary employees in the United Kingdom were women. The inferior quality of these jobs—such as long or inconvenient working hours, work intensity, and long commutes—probably takes a toll on family life, lowering male spouses’ well-being.
Insecurity and the reversal of household roles
Interestingly, the negative well-being impacts of unemployment and temporary work on both male and female spouses are not the strongest when there are two people in the household experiencing these stressful job situations. In fact, men and women experience the lowest levels of well-being when the couple’s gender roles are disrupted: when the female spouse has a permanent job and the male spouse is unemployed or temporarily employed. Conversely, job insecurity hurts them less when both spouses experience one or the other type of job instability.
These findings indicate that despite the rapid increase in women’s labor force participation and the increase in dual-earner couples, many people still see breadwinning as a sign of masculinity and caregiving as a sign of femininity. Reversing these household roles is a significant source of disruption for many couples. It seems that women’s labor market insecurity decreases the stigma attached to unstable employment for male spouses by preventing men from further deviating from their provider role.
Support gender-egalitarian policies
The share of temporary contracts has been increasing steadily in many industrialized societies since the 1970s. The economic recession of 2007–2008 and the consequent recovery exacerbated this increase. Therefore, the negative consequences of temporary jobs on well-being will only accentuate in the near future, particularly with the growth of the gig economy.
These findings suggest that governments should develop public policies on two fronts. First, labor force programs should aim to improve both job quantity and quality. Job creation alone, irrespective of the quality of new jobs, is not sufficient to improve the well-being of workers and their families.
Second, because family well-being is still contingent on men’s ability to be the main breadwinner, we have even more reason to support gender-egalitarian policies, such as equal pay and paid family leave for both men and women. When the gendered norms regarding domestic and breadwinning roles weaken, couples will be better equipped to navigate hardship in the labor market.