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  • 17th Apr 2018

Unemployed after 40 years: what next?

Keith Lowe worked at the BHP steelworks in Newcastle, a regional city in Australia, for nearly 40 years before it closed in 1999.

Despite the shock of closure, Keith walked out of the steelworks’ gates for the last time with confidence in his future. Keith likes using his hands. Before the steelworks closed he took up a training voucher and used it to get a certificate in massage therapy. Keith went on to a long career in the eco-resorts of the nearby Hunter Valley. Still today, in his early seventies, he travels to Sydney to work with favourite clients.

Developed countries are struggling to deal with the consequences of regional economic decline. The upheaval caused by factory closure and loss of jobs are felt daily in our politics and policies. Within this debate, a core question is how do we encourage more stories like Keith’s?

Transitioning a career is hard. It is even harder when demand for your job and profession lowers dramatically. Policymakers know the fundamentals of transition programmes – training, payouts and general career guidance – but this is not enough to maximise success. At BIT, we believe transitions must be designed with a better understanding of human nature.

An abandoned paper mill in Vicksburg, United States

Job loss impacts our identity and forces complex decisions

Our sense of ourselves is built around the groups we identify with; our community, our sports team, our ethnicity, our profession. Losing a job, or the prospect of losing a job, causes anxiety over both future earnings and the impact to our identity. In many cases, people need time to come to terms with what has happened. We can be reluctant to consider alternative paths that conflict with the identity we hold. In the worst cases, shocks can affect our sense of self-worth with lasting consequences on our approach to employment and community.

Even if we are ready for change, how do we begin to sort the jobs we can or would like to do from an infinite list of options? Jobseekers need to make complex decisions about the availability of roles, longer-term prospects and job location. Information about the employment market is available but difficult to navigate and much of it is not relevant. Further, career choices are highly personal. We all recognise the temptation of consulting friends and family rather than seeking professional advice, especially when it comes to sensitive life decisions. Unfortunately, this can reinforce the image of traditional and visible careers as the main available routes.

Finally, the process of identifying career opportunities, undertaking retraining and searching for a job requires serious motivation, often in the face of rejection and setbacks.

Behavioural insights can help workers reorientate and retrain following job loss

A behavioural approach is promising when we consider two areas core to successful transition: an internal mindshift towards a new job or career and the practical steps needed to acquire new skills and find a new path.

First, transition programmes must address the impact of job loss on our sense of self. Solutions should consider how our identity and social networks influence decisions and how these structures can also broaden our horizons.

For example, BIT’s work shows how messages from peers can help broaden the scope of education ambitions. We also find exercises where we reflect on our values, in order to decrease the emphasis on other aspects of our identity, can help us to reimagine ourselves at critical moments.

If you’re an accountant who has just lost their job, would you be more likely to listen to the experience of other accountants in similar situations? Or someone with the same education from your area? Would you be motivated by reflecting on what you value in a career? Trialling the impact of peer messages and values affirmation for those forced to reorientate their careers because of factory closure and economic decline could be a promising approach.

Second, transition programmes must help with the practical steps required to search for a new job, identify adjacent and in-demand skills and persist in learning. Solutions should focus on easy and timely prompts alongside tools that help us keep at tasks.

Has a piece of advice ever sent you in a new direction that you previously didn’t consider? Our work in education suggests a text message or letter at the right moment could help job seekers look for jobs in adjacent (and not declining) sectors or outside of their immediate network. Creating and emphasising links between training and potential employers also improves income and employment prospects. Finally, many of us have benefitted from a kind word or piece of encouragement at a moment we felt like quitting a task. Timely messages can increase persistence and engagement. These are approaches worth trialling in communities experiencing economic transition as people search for new jobs and careers.

Of course, a behavioural approach will have little impact without wider action to improve growth and community wellbeing. For a start, access to skills, credit and infrastructure are vital. Still, helping communities will be harder if policy fails to understand how economic decline impacts identity and behaviour.

We are looking to work with cities and regions seeking to achieve successful economic transitions. If you are interested in this work or would like to explore some of the proposed interventions contact