Dan Corry – Chief Executive of New Philanthropy Capital, and who sits on the Centre’s board – reflects on our latest evidence review looking at the different wellbeing impacts of unemployment on men and women.

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Today the Centre publishes a new report- Gender and unemployment – that looks at the effects on subjective individual wellbeing of losing a job. But in doing so it raises a key problem with regards to the implications for policy of using a wellbeing lens to look at issues.

It is pretty well known that losing a job is one of the worst things that can happen to you, in wellbeing terms. This research gives a strong steer to policy to try to avoid situations where there is an excess amount of it and to help people back into jobs fast.

This new paper divides its examination of the issue by gender and comes out with what is also a quite familiar story: on average, losing a job affects the wellbeing of men more than of women.

The new twist, however, is to look to see if the wellbeing impact of losing your job varies depending on what attitudes the person has to gender roles. It finds, not surprisingly, that people (actually only women) that hold what the paper calls ‘traditional values’ about women’s roles are less likely to experience negative wellbeing impacts if they lose a job. On the other hand, those with what the paper calls ‘egalitarian’, or modern, values do suffer in wellbeing terms. This makes intuitive sense. Those who do not see work as key to their identity and purpose suffer less wellbeing damage when losing their job than others.

But what should we make of this in policy terms? One instinctive jump would be to a conclusion that policy with regards to things like tax and the targeting of resource should therefore support women to not have to go to work if they don’t value it (as well as helping women into work who want to be there). But this feels wrong and might even reverse the gains we have made towards income and other equality between the genders over recent decades.  

Conversely, if the women with ‘traditional’ views who lose a job still have great wellbeing (which I still find hard to believe is universal across income ranges, and worry that abstracting from income loss as the paper does may be misleading) then maybe we don’t need to worry about them at all! Maybe the policy implication is that we should really only help women who lose a job and who care about that to get back into work fast?

There feels something wrong about both these policy responses.

The finding in this paper, at its heart, is all about saying that people like what they are used to and what fits their existing values and beliefs. And that is a problem I have always had with the wellbeing/happiness approach. As I said in a speech a year or two ago – if you become over-focused on maximising individual subjective wellbeing, it tends to mean you keep to the status quo as most people like and value the way things have always been.

To use a slightly unfair analogy, surely a racist person will improve their wellbeing if no ethnic minority people live near them or go their kid’s schools. I am certain we would not want to argue that given we want to maximise their wellbeing we should go along with that in policy terms.

Another dangerous avenue to go down is to believe that wellbeing is maximised by giving people a great deal of leeway, or freedom, to chose as they want and that policy should always and everywhere facilitate this.

Of course we know that agency and a feeling of control and choice are important to wellbeing more generally (up to a degree) and that in many areas people will have different preferences and that if they can exercise them that may well be good for their wellbeing. But that does not get us to a bold ‘freedom to choose’ idea that this is the way to maximise wellbeing, not least because of the implications for others. It is certainly not clear in aggregate that ‘freer’ countries have higher wellbeing, all other things equal, than less ‘free’ countries.

This contradiction between the subjective wellbeing of individuals and the wellbeing of the whole is, of course, very familiar from the utilitarian literature. Great philosophers like J.S. Mill wrestled with it mightily. The heart of democracies are often a debate about these issues.

I am convinced that applying a wellbeing lens to many policy issues will enrich our understanding and get us to focus on many neglected areas. But we have to be careful on how we respond in policy terms to the findings that emerge or we will get us oursevles into an unholy mess.