Perspective: Job Security Perspective: Job Security

June 2, 1997

The u.s. economy is more robust than it has been in decades. But as highlighted by the recent UPS strike, job security still eludes many workers.

What job security means to workers is also elusive. Job security is a multidimensional concept. And the most salient dimension to a worker depends on the stability of the worker's current employment situation.

In a recent study, Alvin Tarlov and I asked white male workers, aged forty to sixty-five, to describe a "secure or stable job." These subjects included the securely employed, workers at a company priding itself on never having layoffs, and three groups of insecure workers -- some anticipating a layoff, some recently laid off, and some unemployed for at least six months or more.

Only two groups described job security in material terms -- as a steady, dependable income. Not surprisingly, these were men who lacked stable employment. They were workers at firms anticipating a layoff and workers unemployed for six months or more.

The securely employed answered quite differently. They defined job security as the ability, or freedom, to use their skills and be productive. As an engineer in his sixties put it, it means having "the reasonable number of tools of the trade that your job requires."

These responses conform to psychologist Abraham Maslow's notion of a hierarchy of needs -- workers focus first on the satisfaction of material needs and only attend to the satisfaction of "higher-order" needs, such as the need for social acceptance or the need to be productive, after "lower-order" needs are met.

To our surprise, however, recent job losers described security not in material terms, but as working in a healthy, stable social environment. A recently laid-off manager defined security as a "healthy, challenging, emotionally healthy, nurturing, exciting" work environment. A sales manager, laid off after nineteen years with the same company, described employment security as "excellent communications" which "could have mitigated the anguish...and...helped a lot of people...feel not just like a pure number at the bottom of a balance sheet, but really as a human being."

Perhaps a severance package, or unemployment insurance, or familial support has allowed these workers to ignore the material dimension of employment security. Or perhaps the trauma of severed social ties, or anger over what felt like personal betrayals, has led them to focus on the social dimension.

Whatever the explanation, their response seems counterproductive. Recently unemployed workers, caught up in the emotions of their situation, may delay finding a job and lengthen their unemployment spell. This, unfortunately, makes reemployment all the more difficult.

Our results also suggest another problem. The lack of job security in the U.S. economy could limit productivity if workers don't feel secure enough to freely use their skills. This lack of job security, moreover, stands in the way of workers gaining the "higher-order" satisfactions that gainful employment provides.

Kathryn Lasch, Research Scientist, The Health Institute at the New England Medical Center; Visiting Scholar, Boston Fed.

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