Priorities aren't working

November 26, 2009

Academics are concerned about the objectivity of a £4.4 million Economic and Social Research Council call, with additional support from the Medical Research Council, for bids to study the happiness of the unemployed and those in unfulfilling jobs ("Happiness research makes academics rather unhappy", 19 November). My own concerns, from the perspective of being unemployed as well as having academic knowledge about unemployment, relate to the research priorities this call reflects.

Even before the Second World War, there were extensive studies of the psychological effects of unemployment (summarised by Eisenberg and Lazarsfeld, 1938). There was more research on the subject in the 1980s, including a highly influential large-scale study funded by the ESRC and the MRC, led by my former teacher, Peter Warr.

Studies from both eras came to similar conclusions about the psychological damage caused by unemployment: there is no obvious reason to think that such effects will be greatly different in the 2010s. All too easy "us and them" studies of the plight of the unemployed will probably do those of us who are affected a little more good than harm, but investigations should address the root causes. More research is needed on the attitudes and decision-making of employers and managers who feel unable to recruit and who make people redundant.

Not least, policy initiatives are also needed concerning higher education's relationship to work. Far too many kindly university staff have drifted into churning out graduates for whom there is little prospect of a satisfactory job. Much could be done, for example, to redeploy resources from undergraduate teaching to address the career-destroying bottlenecks that arise from the lack of opportunities for initial professional training.

Frederic Stansfield, Canterbury.

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