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Unemployment hurts senior jobseekers more. Can a good social network offset this disadvantage?

Two recently-completed theses at the University of Lausanne as part of a LIVES project have produced interesting results relating to the Swiss labour market. Isabel Baumann shows that people over 55 have fewer prospects than young people when seeking employment. Nicolas Turtschi observes the impact of networks on the chances of rejoining the world of work: although personal relationships are useful in decreasing the handicap of age, they do not reduce the impact of other types of inequality.

Using samples of unemployed people produced for the IP204 project of the Swiss National Center of Competence in Research LIVES, Isabel Baumann and Nicolas Turtschi successfully defended their doctoral theses in June 2015, each documenting in their own way the channels via which people find, or fail to find, a way out of unemployment.

In Switzerland, unlike elsewhere in Europe, young people and the low-skilled are unlikely to become stuck in long-term unemployment following the closure of a company. This is one of Isabel Baumann’s conclusions from her studies on the trajectories of around 1,200 people who were collectively laid off between 2009 and 2010 from five industrial companies which closed their doors in different regions of Switzerland.

Two years after losing their jobs, two-thirds of the displaced workers had found new employment, half in less than six months, a third with a salary increase and most in the same area of work. Most people with a low level of education had not been forced to take service jobs such as cleaning or in fast food outlets. The manufacturing sector remains a provider of employment in Switzerland.

The most vulnerable are those over 55 years of age; this group is the most likely not to have found employment, or to have accepted a lower quality, lower paid job following a longer period of unemployment than young people and low-skilled people.

For those left behind, the negative repercussions on well-being and sociability are significant. Only older people who were able to take early retirement eventually experienced this transition in a positive way. 32% of those over 55 were able to access this solution, while 37% were still unemployed at the end of 2011 and only 31% had found work again, often under less favourable conditions.

Potentially growing phenomenon

"This result is striking in the context of the current demographic development," says Isabel Baumann. As baby boomers enter this age group, unemployment among older people could affect a growing number of people over the next fifteen years.

The young researcher is therefore calling for continuous training measures to be improved. The apprenticeship system, which at first improves the employability of young people in Switzerland, risks putting those who did not keep up with technological progress at a disadvantage thirty years later.

In the shorter term, she recommends better support in searching for employment for older people who have been let go. She also believes that making it easier to take early retirement is an option to be considered.

Her thesis, which was directed by Prof. Daniel Oesch, has been accepted for publication in the Springer Life Course Research and Social Policies. This will be the first monograph published and will be in open access in autumn 2016.

Compensating effect of networks

Still as part of IP204 but under the supervision of Prof. Giuliano Bonoli, Nicolas Turtschi worked on another sample of unemployed people, which was more diverse in terms of profile, but limited to the Swiss canton of Vaud.

From February to April 2012, all persons attending the group information session on unemployment benefits, organised by regional employment centres, were asked to complete a questionnaire on social networks and access to employment. People who found work within twelve months received a second questionnaire. Those who were still unemployed after one year were also interviewed with a third type of questionnaire. Around 3,500 people took part in the study.

Nicolas Turtschi shows that certain disadvantaged sub-populations, such as people aged fifty and over, benefit from a "compensatory effect" thanks to their networks. But he notes in particular that "the most advantaged profiles statistically have the most interesting social resources". Clearly, people of foreign origin and those with the lowest educational level have fewer useful contacts for finding work. Among the most valuable relationships, former colleagues are much more useful than family and loved ones. Being a member of an association appears to have no effect on the period of unemployment, a finding that mirrors the other research mentioned above.

Feelings of guilt

"Social networks amplify the inequalities involved in rejoining the workforce," concludes the researcher, calling for targeted actions on the least advantaged profiles to help them identify and mobilise their contacts. He also recommends "exonerating" the unemployed, so that their shame does not cut out relationships.

Finally there is the question of the quality of the employment found through networking, which, according to Nicolas Turtschi, deserves more research, which has already been partially provided by Isabel Baumann: in her sample of industry workers, people who found a new job through a personal contact lost an average of 6% of income compared to their previous salary, in comparison with just 2% for others.

This puts the importance of networks into perspective somewhat, whose "negative aspect", in some cases, should not be overlooked. This nuanced reflection by Nicolas Turtschi invites further research to better understand the complexity of social networks and their influence on the values, perceptions and ideas of individuals.

In a very metaphorical conclusion, he ends by suggesting that, as sources of information, networks could be likened to a sense, in the same way as sight or hearing. A kind of "social sense", "developed to differing degrees, with different levels of effectiveness", the only one that is likely to improve with age, in fact!

As for the future of our two young PhDs, no one will be surprised to hear that they themselves will not encounter the problems of unemployment: Isabel Baumann will continue her career at the Centre de recherche des sciences de la santé at the Haute École Spécialisé de Zurich, and Nicolas Turtschi has a position at the Haute École de la Santé du Canton de Vaud.


>> Baumann, Isabel (2015). Labor market experience and well-being after firm closure: Survey evidence on displaced manufacturing workers in Switzerland. Under the supervision of Daniel Oesch. University of Lausanne.

>> Turtschi, Nicolas (2015). Les réseaux sociaux : un outil de réinsertion pour les chômeurs désavantagés. Under the supervision of Giuliano Bonoli. University of Lausanne