Given a generally stronger social norm for men to be working in paid employment than for women, unemployment is typically worse for the wellbeing of men than women. That is the consensus finding of a survey of leading researchers on wellbeing from around the world.

But the experts are divided on whether unemployment is better for an individual’s happiness than being employed in a bad job.

Unemployment, gender and happiness

In the seventh round of the World Wellbeing Panel monthly survey, 21 wellbeing experts from economics, sociology and psychology who responded to the survey were first asked whether they agree with the following statement:

 In general, unemployment is worse for the wellbeing of a woman than for the wellbeing of a man

Figure 1. Yes/No replies to the first statement


The consensus of our happiness experts is that men on average suffer more from unemployment; there is a stronger social norm to work in paid employment for men than for women. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve (Oxford University) reminds us that ‘the data on wellbeing and unemployment split by gender is clear: men seem even more impacted than women’.

Nick Powdthavee (Warwick Business School) elaborates: ‘for those people with joblessness and looking for one, it has been shown very clearly across time and countries that unemployment is much more detrimental for men than for women’.

Looking at the detailed July 2017 survey responses, we see that many on the World Wellbeing Panel offer explanations as to why women cope better with unemployment. Bruno Frey ( CREMA) is of the opinion that ‘women still have more options in life than work and are consequently less vulnerable when one option fails’.

Controlling for family status and income, Heinz Welsch (University of Oldenburg) thinks ‘that women are on average less psychologically dependent on a job as a source of meaning and social inclusion’.

Martin Binder (Bard College, Berlin) suggests that ‘social norms and traditional gender roles could make it easier for women to adapt to the role of being unemployed’. Perhaps in the work-family nexus, men are more oriented to work while women still have more options in life than work and are consequently less vulnerable when one option fails.

Is some work better for happiness than no work?

The experts are split down the middle on the question of whether the type of job doesn’t matter: is some work better than no work?

Figure 2. Researchers have found jobs that are worse for wellbeing than unemployment

Ruut Veenhoven (Erasmus University) refers us to his World Database of Happiness, which shows a few cases in particular countries of slightly lower happiness in some jobs (for example, sales worker) than among the unemployed. Yet these are exceptions: as a rule, happiness is lowest among the (involuntary) unemployed.

Richard Layard (London School of Economics) provides empirical evidence: ‘unemployment reduces life-satisfaction (measured 0-10) by at least 0.7 points. By contrast a job that is 1 standard deviation (in terms of job quality) reduces life-satisfaction by only 0.4 points’.

But Daniel Benjamin (Cornell University) raises an important point: ‘in some countries, parents force children into jobs even though the child would have higher wellbeing (both in terms of happiness and lifetime utility) by being in school’.

Perhaps this is why Esteban Calvo (Universidad Diego Portales) is of the opinion that, ‘Voluntary unemployment is preferable than a terribly bad job’. Of course it all depends on what we mean by a ‘bad job’: is a bad job one where the worker is exposed to occupational health and safety hazards? Or is a bad job one where workers are underpaid: for example, there is some initial evidence of systemic exploitation of migrant workers in Australia.

Wenceslao Unanue (Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez) recalls a recent article in The Independent by Peter Kinderman (President, British Psychological Society), Martin Pollecoff (Chair, UK Council for Psychotherapy) and Andrew Reeves (Chair, British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy). They call on governments ‘to rethink the Jobcentre’s role from not only increasing employment, but also ensuring the quality of that employment, given that bad jobs can be more damaging to mental health than unemployment’.



  • The World Wellbeing Panel on wellbeing and organisational structures is available here. The experts, their affiliations and their responses to the survey are here.
  • The post gives the views of its author, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
  • Featured image credit: Photo by FORREST CAVALE on Unsplash
  • When you leave a comment, you’re agreeing to our Comment Policy.

Tony Beatton is Honorary Professor at RMIT University’s Department of Economics, Finance and Marketing



paul-frijtersPaul Frijters is Professorial Research Fellow of the Wellbeing Programme at LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance, taking over from Professor Richard Layard. Paul also heads the World Wellbeing Panel. He did his PhD on welfare and wellbeing in Russia, after a Masters in Econometrics. He has worked in a variety of roles on very different problems, such as urban-to-rural migration in China (where he headed a large international research program), corruption, applied econometrics, and wellbeing. He was voted ‘best economist under 40’ by the members of the Economic Society of Australia in 2009-2011. His works have been discussed in the New York Times, Washington Post, the BBC, etc.

Nick PowdthaveeNattavudh (Nick) Powdthavee holds a joint position as a Professorial Research Fellow at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economics and Social Research, University of Melbourne, and a Principal Research Fellow in the WellBeing research programme at the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE. He obtained his PhD in Economics from the University of Warwick in 2006 and has held positions at the University of London, University of York, and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He is the author of the popular economics book The Happiness Equation: The Surprising Economics of Our Most Valuable Asset. Click here for his website.