Long-Term Unemployment: A Destructive and Chronic Social Issue

Businesses are shuttering. Millions of people are out of jobs. And the full economic impact of the global coronavirus pandemic remains unknown. In these uncertain times, many workers are bracing for long-term unemployment.

Navigating this economy will require significant support systems, and social workers are poised to play an invaluable role responding to the needs of people grappling with unemployment. From providing emotional support to clients to helping them prepare for interviews, social workers can aid those struggling through this rough patch as they work to land on their feet.

What Is Long-Term Unemployment?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines long-term unemployment  as being without work for 27 weeks (six months) or longer while actively looking for a job. As of March 2020, there were approximately 1.2 million long-term unemployed individuals in the United States (PDF, 251 KB), which constituted nearly 16% of the nation’s unemployed population at that time. This number does not include people who have lost their jobs and given up on looking for employment. 

Long-term unemployment does not have one specific cause; rather, it is the result of multiple social, economic and individual factors. Two main categories of unemployment are cyclical and structural. 

Cyclical Unemployment:  occurs as a result of an economic recession

Structural Unemployment:  occurs when workers’ skills don’t meet the needs of the job market 

After losing a job, the risk of long-term unemployment is roughly the same for all individuals, regardless of their degree of education, according to Ofer Sharone, PhD, who founded the Institute for Career Transitions  (ICT), a pro bono support center for the long-term unemployed.

“The likelihood of you falling into long-term unemployment is just as great if you have a college degree than if you have a high school diploma,” he said. 

Even when they are qualified for a position, people who are unemployed for long periods of time may experience a form of discrimination from potential employers as a result of negative stigma associated with unemployment.

“Just as we would find it totally unacceptable to have a society in which someone because of their race or because of their gender is not given the opportunity to contribute their talent to society, I think we should find it equally morally unacceptable to have a large group—millions of people—excluded from work because of a bias, namely the fact that they’ve been out of a job for six months,” Sharone said. “[Such discrimination is] obviously hurtful to the individual, but it’s also hurtful to all of society because we create excluded groups of people. I think that all of us lose our sense of faith and the hope in the American dream.”


The Effects of Chronic Unemployment

The combination of employer discrimination and the emotional toll that unemployment has on an individual contributes significantly to the struggles that people who are unemployed long term encounter when seeking jobs. Based on analyses of unemployment during the Great Recession, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index found that unemployed individuals are significantly more likely to experience heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and hopelessness  than their employed peers, and these mental health issues often intensify the longer a person is unemployed.

“It’s a very specific situational context that creates emotional turmoil,” Sharone explained. “[You] are applying for jobs, hundreds and hundreds of jobs typically, and you’re getting either no response at all or you’re getting rejected. And typically, those rejections feel very [personal] in the American case.”

When that rejection is taken personally, it can lead to job seekers feeling like there is something wrong with them, which can bleed into other areas of the job search process such as networking and interviewing.

“Unemployment, and especially long-term unemployment, can affect people’s spirit and sense of self,” says career coach and licensed clinical social worker Mary Pender Greene. “[A]s a result, during interviews, [long-term unemployed individuals] may be weary, depressed and frustrated, and it comes across. They might feel desperate at times, and it shows in the interview.”

There are also very practical concerns that those who are unemployed for lengthy periods of time may encounter.

“Long-term unemployment disrupts life,” Sharone said. “It means dislocation. It means having to sell homes. It means having to spend the money you might have saved for your kids’ college education or for your retirement. It means asking for money from people who are close to you.” 

In the 2014 survey Left Behind: The Long-term Unemployed Struggle in an Improving Economy (PDF, 1.1 MB),  researchers at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development found the following:


of long-term unemployed individuals surveyed experienced a negative change in their lifestyle during the Great Recession.


of those individuals described this change as a major upheaval.


of respondents reported having strained relationships with friends and family as a result of their employment situation.

“For every person who is experiencing long-term unemployment, there is a whole network of people who are suffering as a result,” Sharone said. “The spouse, the parents, the children—these are kind of collateral victims: They are just as much, often, victims of this as the job seeker is.”


How Social Workers Can Help People Who Are Chronically Unemployed

Social workers can play a powerful role in helping long-term unemployed individuals get back on their feet. They’re trained to take a holistic approach to problems in order to connect clients to the appropriate resources. 

“Social workers are very well situated to be able to help the job seeker contextualize the struggle that they face, to help them understand that this is part of a larger picture and to diminish the self-blame,” Sharone said. “I think social workers are trained in understanding these institutional dynamics, and they bring tremendous value to the table with that.”

How to Support Unemployed Clients’ Needs

Individuals who have been unemployed for long periods generally need to take a multifaceted approach to successfully finding a job. That approach can include:

  • Creating structure to their day.
  • Constructing an effective job search strategy.
  • Optimizing their job application materials.
  • Addressing any emotional or mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or hopelessness.
  • Seeking the support of their friends, family and community.

Social workers can help their clients with each of the action items listed above by:

  • Guiding them through the process of applying for unemployment benefits.
  • Providing emotional and mental health support.
  • Helping them develop a sound self-care plan.
  • Connecting them to unemployment and job search resources in their community.
  • Providing advice on career and life transitions.
  • Helping them set personal and professional goals.
  • Developing a daily, weekly and monthly schedule to achieve these goals. 

“The most important thing [social workers can do] is to help their clients recognize that unemployment can happen to anyone, and to address their sense of failure and embarrassment,” Pender Greene explained.


How Communities Can Help Long-Term Unemployed People

Given the complex and immovable nature of long-term unemployment and the deep-rooted effects it has on people, collaboration between social workers, nonprofit organizations, government departments and the general population may be necessary to make an appreciable dent in America’s long-term unemployment levels. 

For example, people who are not formally trained in social work, career counseling or other helping professions can still help long-term unemployed friends and family through a combination of empathy and networking opportunities.

“Often, job seekers will say that when I interview them, that’s the first time anyone has really asked them kind of probing, deep questions that invite them to candidly explain their experiences and their pain,” Sharone said. “And they do want to talk about it, if they think someone is going to be empathetic and wants to hear.”

Ways to Support Family and Friends Through Long-Term Unemployment

  • Show genuine interest in conversations unrelated to the job search.
  • Listen to problems and offer empathy and understanding in return.
  • Avoid giving unsolicited advice or criticisms.
  • Connect each other with professional contacts.
  • Offer to read and refine resumes and cover letters.
  • Accompany each other to job fairs and other employment events.
  • Share information about job opportunities, skill-building courses and other events.
  • Provide information about health care and other unemployment benefits.
  • Practice interviewing questions and scenarios together. 

“I think the best way to help, in addition to listening, is to think about whether you know anybody in your network that could be a lead for them,” Sharone said. “Because this is really how the game is played. And we can be critical of that—I am critical of that—but that’s the reality for job seekers.”


Are you struggling with unemployment? OnlineMSWPrograms.com has gathered a list of resources that can help with the job search.