Jobs influence who we are and our relations with others. In most societies, jobs are a fundamental source of self-respect and social identity.
Jobs also connect people with others through networks.
The workplace can be a place to encounter new ideas and information and to interact with people of different cultures and ethnicities. The distribution of jobs within society and perceptions about who has access to opportunities and why can shape people’s expectations and aspirations for the future, their sense of having a stake in society and perceptions of fairness.
These individual influences of jobs may also have collective consequences. Having or not having a job may affect key elements of social cohesion, the capacity of societies to manage collective decision-making peacefully.
While the frustration of unemployed youth during the Arab Spring suggests that the lack of jobs can be a source of social unrest that does not mean the relationship between jobs and social cohesion is straightforward, immediate or direct.
Rather, the relationship is contextual and shaped by individuals, their values, attitudes, behaviours and the institutions that surround them. It cuts both ways, social cohesion can also influence jobs by shaping the context in which entrepreneurs make investment decisions.
Empirical evidence of a connection between jobs and social cohesion is limited by data constraints, the complexity of measuring social interactions and the multiple factors that can contribute to social cohesion.
But cross-country analysis finds that job loss or lack of access to jobs is associated with lower levels of trust and civic engagement. This is not only a rich-country phenomenon, as is often suggested. Unemployment can cause depression, increase mistrust in others and lead people to drop out of community life.
Migrants without social ties may be excluded from job opportunities that would allow them to succeed in their new environments. In extreme cases, if people, particularly youth, lack jobs and hope for the future, they may turn to violent or criminal activity to compensate for the absence of self-esteem and sense of belonging that a job might otherwise provide. Similarly, jobs offering limited opportunities for future growth or lacking access to voice can lead to alienation and frustration.
Conversely, some jobs are positively correlated with social cohesion.
Jobs that are empowering, build agency and provide access to voice can increase trust and people’s willingness to participate in civil society. Jobs can create economic and social ties and have the potential to build incentives to work across boundaries and resolve conflict.
In addition, people’s trust in government and their confidence in institutions may increase if they believe that job opportunities are available to them either now or in the future. Jobs can influence social cohesion through their effects on social identity, networks and fairness.
Recent studies analysing the lead-up consequences of the financial crisis and the Arab Spring have broadcast a common sentiment that unemployment, especially among young people, can ignite unrest and violence.
The revolution in Tunisia was sparked by the protests of a fruit vendor frustrated by his inability to get a permit to do his job. High levels of youth unemployment were a significant contributing factor to the riots in the United Kingdom in the summer of 2011.
These events suggest that jobs can contribute to social cohesion, including how societies handle differences and manage tensions among different groups and how they avoid and resolve conflicts. There are many possible ways to define social cohesion.
But, overall, social cohesion refers to the capacity of societies to peacefully manage collective decision-making.
Social cohesion thus relates to the processes and institutions that shape how groups interact. It does not follow that collective decision-making should be imposed from above but rather that channels for voice, accountability and inclusive participation of diverse groups can contribute to a cohesive society.
The capacity of a country to support peaceful collective decision-making involves multiple factors including the quality of institutions, intergroup relations, and the effectiveness of channels for resolving conflicts.
Civic engagement relates to social capital, participation and the agency that motivates individuals to be part of collective action.