What does love feel like when you don’t know what tomorrow will bring? When life as you imagined it seems further and further out of reach? How do you know when it’s time to hold on to what you’ve got, or let go in the face of mounting anxiety? What if you’re so stressed out you can’t even think?
Trends like restructuring, privatization, mergers, downsizing, and relentlessly high unemployment are transforming intimate relationships. Chronic job insecurity is shifting the way we approach the idea of hooking up, having sex, staying together, and starting families. And it might just be changing the very nature of romance.
One minute you’re happily planning a life together and talking about having kids. Then, suddenly, everything changes.
Conservatives are forever preaching about family values, but their job-destroying, anti-worker policies have made it harder and harder for young people to put down roots and reach the level of stability required for long-term relationships and children.
The most anti-family period in living memory for most is leaving a trail of broken hearts in its wake.
When you’re underemployed, when your job is below your skill level, when you fear the next pink slip might be yours, frustration and fear follow you everywhere. The tentacles of anxiety and depression can shoot out suddenly, seizing both partners in the grip of despair.
Erin, 33, works for a non-profit in Boston. Since the economic crash, funding for her organization has become increasingly scarce. She searches frantically for a more secure position and has launched a video business on the side, just in case the other shoe drops.
Erin met her boyfriend on a film production set in Arizona. In 2010 he moved to Boston to be with her. “I knew it might be hard for him to find work, and I figured I could help support him for a while. He’s not lazy. He looked hard for a good job.” Even so, Brandon, 38, has only been able to land a part-time gig at a shoe store.
Brandon is plagued by anxiety. “He’s told me that as a man it hurts him not to be able to help more,” says Erin. “Our relationship isn’t bad,” she points out. “We love each other. But your emotions get tied up. Sometimes I fly off the handle if he doesn’t do the dishes. And I know it’s about more than the dishes. It’s hard for me to support him financially.”
Erin isn’t sure that their relationship can outlast hard economic times. Her own work situation has made her irritable and anxious. She suffers from some of the symptoms researchers have found to trouble women in insecure jobs, including low morale and a bleak view of the future.
Erin questions whether it’s time to break up, but she hates to think about the consequences. “Will he be out on the street?” she wonders. If things continue the way they are, she's afraid she will have to move back in with her parents.
Job insecurity hammers everyone who experiences it. But symptoms in men may be especially acute. Research from Cambridge University shows that even though more women than men in the U.K. have lost their jobs in the recession, “men who think they may be fired or made redundant are more likely to become stressed and depressed about it than women.”
Stable employment is deeply entwined with images of masculinity. Brendan Burchell, the director of the Cambridge study, notes that men have few positive ways of defining themselves outside of the workplace. Like other researchers, Burchell has found that the long-term risk of losing your job could be worse than the short-term impact of actually losing it. He believes that in the current economic climate, “many people -- and men in particular -- could be entering into a period of prolonged and growing misery.”
Sean C., a 31-year-old Boston native, would agree. He thinks he can’t even afford a girlfriend.
Sean wrote to me in an email that the women in Boston are looking for a guy with a stable job and money to spend on fun dates. The son of a policeman and a nurse, Sean was a working-class kid who had to pay his way through college with two jobs. Even so, he couldn’t afford to finish and still struggles to pay down student loans and credit card debt. In and out of work for the past five years, Sean has a job now as a data analyst, putting in a grueling 50-60 hours per week. He makes $32,000 a year. Sean has been looking “feverishly” for another job and has scored a few interviews, but no offers. Meanwhile, his dating life is suffering.
“I found a girl who was studying law at Boston University,” Sean writes. “We went out, and I paid for everything (a gentleman always should on the first date; just the way it is): food, drinks, dinner, etc. On the cab ride home, I was beat but this girl wanted to go to the club…she asked if I had $15 dollars so I could get in. I told her I had only enough to get home. After she got out, the cabbie said to me, ‘You might need to get a second job to afford her!’”
Sean knows his manhood will be measured by the size of his income. “Men have magazines like Money and Forbes that create insecurities when they look at their wallets,” he points out. In these troubled times, he believes that women are looking for a man who can “bring home the bacon.”
“I don’t want to be the 50-year-old guy I see on my train station each day working at CVS,” he writes. “I envy what the Baby Boomer generation has: a home, multiple children, a car.” Sean doesn’t believe that working hard and playing by the rules will bring him the rewards a previous generation came to expect. “The way things are going economically …I’m never going to make more than $35K/year, and I fear for a potential mate, that’s just never going to be enough to support a family.”
Agony Over Ecstasy
Starting a family is pretty tough when you don’t even feel like having sex. New research shows that long-term job insecurity messes around with our primal urges. It has been linked to depression and a number of physical symptoms, including increased blood pressure.
Add a dose of libido-squelching anti-anxiety drugs and you’ve got a recipe for a sexual train wreck.
Fear of getting laid off, it turns out, lowers the chances of getting laid.
A recent Swiss study revealed that men and women facing job insecurity are 53 and 47 percent more likely, respectively, to experience low sexual desire than men and women in secure jobs.
Feelings of decreased self-worth and desirability go hand-in-hand with job insecurity—and they make you feel about as alluring as an Uglydoll. The 2011 blockbuster film Bridesmaids follows the sexual and romantic mishaps of Annie Walker, a 30-something woman who lost her bakery in the Great Recession and finds herself working at a dead-end retail job at a jewelry store that makes her feel miserable. And even that goes down the tubes when she mocks the relationship commitments of customers. Annie hooks up with jerks and feels unworthy of a nice guy when he finally comes along. Her mojo returns only when she begins to see the possibility of restarting her business. For her, meaningful work and a satisfying love life are indissolubly linked.
Our bodies –and our hearts -- were not made to cope with long-term job insecurity. To fully open ourselves to the right person and let go physically, we need a measure of safety in our lives. But three consecutive years of unemployment over 8 percent – the worst such run since the Great Depression – is leaving us fearful and forlorn. Shredded social safety nets and weak bonds of community and kinship mean that there’s little to mute the intensity of anxiety that never seems to fade.
As Jim Pollard of the Male Health blog put it, the current situation is a psychological and economic time bomb:
“Nobody gets a job and is set up for life anymore…Yet clearly, psychologically, security is what we need. In the past, to criticize job insecurity was seen as a political position, considered unhelpful by governments who saw job security as a barrier to prosperity. Today's research shows that this is not a political issue but a health one. Not only does this way of working not create wealth, it is destroying us from the inside out.”
Contrary to what we’re often told, job insecurity is not an inevitable or natural state in the 21st century.
The current jobs disaster is the result of deliberate policy choices that have spawned a predatory financial sector and a corporate climate in which traumatizing workers is excused -- and even applauded. Since the 1980s, policies based on discredited neoclassical economic theories have destroyed the worker security that used to ensure social cohesion and stable family life. Union-crushing, deliberate wage suppression, deregulation, unfair tax polices, and austerity measures have done their terrible work and left ordinary Americans at the mercy of a ruthless corporate power-grab.
In his book Coming Apart, conservative Charles Murray laments the breakdown of white working-class families. But he wrongly blames what he considers individual failings, like lack of religiosity or laziness. What he fails to address is the magnitude of the economic loss and precariousness faced by today’s working people: the stagnating wages, the vanishing well-paying union jobs, the mass layoffs and the outsourcing of jobs by companies that feel no obligation to the taxpayers and employees who have invested sweat and resources in their success. Murray doesn’t want to see that diminished opportunity and hope is much more likely to unravel families than missing church.
Since the Great Recession hit, fertility rates have plummeted in the U.S. The number of babies born in 2009 was the lowest in a century, and the paltry birth-rate trend has continued. In Europe, a decade-long increase in fertility came to a screeching halt in 2011, as misguided austerity policies locked much of the eurozone into a downward economic spiral. Countries like Spain, unsurprisingly, have been hit hardest. Across the world, young people yearn to forge lasting relationships and start families, but doing so seems too expensive given the current rates of unemployment and underemployment. And it’s nearly impossible if you’re living in your parents’ garage.
A New Psychological Contract?
Since the late 18th century, at least, we in the Western world have chosen our mates largely on the basis of attraction and desire. There has probably always been some mixture of love and economic considerations in the marriage pact, but by the time industrial capitalism took off, the emphasis on romantic love was firmly in place. Capitalism’s focus on individualism and free contractual arrangements replaced a system in which familial, communal and religious bonds had greater influence over long-term relationships.
And that had its benefits. The Dionysian irrationality of our emotional and sexual lives promised an antidote to the ugly, transactional, bureaucratic side of capitalism. Romantic love was supposed to give meaning to our lives in a world stripped of spirituality and community. Melding with another being brought relief to the agony of an atomized, isolated existence. As our material comfort grew and advanced medicine reduced the chances that our partner would die, we could be free to love wholeheartedly.
But the psychological contract may be changing. Historically, when two people have decided to partner, they have done so with some general understanding of the terms to which they are committing themselves. But when the future is unforeseeable, the terms of the partnership become cloudy. If you don't know what you're signing up for, why sign up at all?
Americans under 35 have lost more than a third of their net worth since 2001, compared with a 27 percent decline for all ages. The last to be hired and the first to be fired, young people face the worst job market in 60 years. Research showsthat the ongoing youth unemployment crisis could create a "scarring effect" on their long-term career paths and future earnings prospects.
If the current trend continues, one possibility is that economic calculations may begin to increasingly trump romantic attraction in the choice of mate. Our individualistic sentimentalism exalts the wonders of romance, but in many societies, such indulgence is considered a luxury; something people can’t afford to prioritize in forging long-term relationships. We may soon be joining them.
Those constantly blown around by their jobs and unable to find firm economic footing won’t even get to the commitment stage.
The current system is distorting our natural inclinations. Ironically, that’s bad for capitalism. Worker insecurity stifles the kinds of investments in households and families that make possible the consumption that keeps the show running. No nesting? Then no houses, cars and washing machines. The U.S. housing market is already suffering from the number of young people who can’t afford to commit to large, long-term purchases.
Hope Springs Eternal
There’s another, less depressing possibility in this unfinished tale. The Occupy movement and related uprisings around the world suggest that young people have the energy to confront a system that has stripped them of the possibility for a good education, a decent career and now, even a partner and a family.
Joel B., a 30-year-old environmental planner, has experienced an awakening since the downturn forced him to move from London to Oman to find work and leave his girlfirend Amy behind. For a while he felt like a failure. But chronic job insecurity has forced him to reevaluate personal priorities. He has become more engaged in social issues and looks for new ways to find fulfillment. Joel finds himself drawn toward activism, which gives him hope of being able to change things. He has been involved in both the Occupy movement and Move Your Money, a campaign designed to challenge the dominance of big banks.
Young people like Joel are discovering that romance will not offer salvation in a society that is disintegrating and pushing people to the breaking point. They are beginning to study and question the contradictions of a system of ruthless oppression that has taken away so much.
“Austerity policies place such a burden on young people," says Joel. "We have little savings. We’re told that we’re lazy if we can’t find permanent work. But this economic situation is out of our control.”
Normal human life and contemporary reality can’t coexist for long. There have been giant social movements before, and there can be again. The passion of young people is being diverted from its natural channels. Just maybe it can be collectively harnessed to confront political and economic systems that have become the enemies of life itself.