The effects on unemployment on your sense of self

Nothing prepared me for the toll unemployment and job-hunting would take on my mental health.

Most advice for dealing with unemployment seems to focus on the practicalities: how to pay rent, how to apply for the dole, how to navigate dealing with job service providers. Advice about those things is absolutely useful, but I was floored by the hit I took to my self-esteem while looking for work, and I don’t think I’m alone. The mental and emotional toll of unemployment cannot be overstated.

Under capitalism, looking for a job essentially means you’re constantly working to sell the best possible version of yourself. What does it mean when potential employers don’t even respond to an application you spent hours on? What does it mean when you receive a dismissive one-line email after completing an hour-long interview and four hour-long tasks for no compensation? After a certain number of rejections, it becomes almost impossible to not take them personally. It becomes almost impossible to avoid internalising the rejections, to avoid seeing them as a rejection of you as a person, and your abilities—an indictment of your worth, or lack thereof.

In 2019, after I’d saved up enough money working as a freelance contractor (no benefits, no super, no consistent schedule), I decided to try and move to London—I wanted to use my EU passport before Brexit kicked in and made doing so incredibly difficult.

Armed with more money than I’d ever earned in my life up to that point and two degrees from a decent university, I made the move in March 2019. By mid-May, I was on a plane back home, having depleted my savings and given up on the job hunt after seventy job applications. Over half the places I applied to didn’t even respond. Of the ones that did, nineteen rejected me without an interview.

Australian employers appear to be marginally better at responding to applications—out of the sixty-four applications I sent between May and September 2019, only nineteen were never responded to, while twenty-three were unsuccessful without an interview. I eventually found a job in September: a three-month contract that wasn’t extended.

The pandemic hasn’t made it any less difficult to thrive under capitalism. Having suspended my legal studies after four terms (something that turned out to be the right decision given my soon-to-be-diagnosed ADHD and the looming Sydney lockdown), I was back to looking for a job in order to justify my continued existence. This time around, twenty-three employers never responded to my application, while eighteen rejected me without an interview. After just over three months of looking, I found a job—my first full-time job, complete with benefits, at the age of twenty-eight.


I cannot stress just how much my self-esteem suffered this year while I was job hunting. You can do seemingly everything ‘right’: study, complete unpaid internships (my total was 8), freelance, network, ‘hustle’. And none of it will matter, until it does. Those stretches of time where nobody is responding to your applications leave you with way too much free time to sit and think about why that’s the case: what’s wrong with me that nobody will even take a chance? Not falling into a pit of despair and self-loathing becomes almost impossible, particularly when job hunting is combined with being locked in your own home for months on end.

Then suddenly, a lifeline: someone believes you are worthy of employment. It’s ridiculous how much of a balm this is to your battered ego, but it is. Suddenly you don’t feel like you have nothing to show for your life except for a series of mistakes. Suddenly you don’t feel like a complete failure of an adult.

I wish I had such a strong sense of self that constant rejections didn’t affect my self-esteem, but I don’t. Resisting narratives imposed on you by others, and not letting those narratives affect how you see yourself, is the part of being unemployed that doesn’t get talked about enough.

Kit has been essentially unemployed all year, yet during the pandemic studied photography, registered a photography business, completed the NEIS program, built a website, started a Patreon and worked four casual jobs—but still gets lectured by her family for being a ‘dole bludger’. ‘They’re so invested in the dole bludger narrative that all the things I’m doing to position myself for when the pandemic ends are ‘irrelevant’,‘ she told me.

Meanwhile, Patti tried to remind herself that we’re living through a pandemic, and people aren’t really hiring, but seeing others with similar qualifications and experience quickly find jobs gave her pause. ‘[It’s] especially hard knowing people doing the same thing and getting jobs straight away like … [you’re] happy for them but can’t help but reflect on why you haven’t got that?’ She said that completing hundreds of job applications during the eighteen months she was unemployed did ultimately get her down, ‘especially coming ‘second’ quite a lot’, and she ‘felt embarrassed that I had a degree and wasn’t using it.’

Dominic said that there was a lot of impostor syndrome wrapped up in his search for a job in academia:

There were a few jobs I was perfectly qualified for, my resume matched what they wanted to do exactly and both of those companies either never responded or rejected my application within a day. It made me really question if spending the last 10 years of my life in uni had been worth it. … I also ended up being incredibly mad at the university system. They get people into degrees promising careers and jobs but then abandon us when we graduate.

The negative impacts of unemployment on self-esteem and wellbeing are only compounded when you’re forced to deal with Centrelink and a Job Service Provider (JSP). I’ve previously written about the government’s PaTH program, and how that saw people with ample qualifications get pressured into accepting unpaid internships in areas like administration, housekeeping, and food preparation. Which isn’t to say that those areas are of less value, or that those who work in those fields aren’t themselves qualified—but one of the big lies sold to us early on is that if you work hard, study hard, and get a good degree, you’ll find a well-paying job and be set for life. It’s been obvious for a while that this isn’t the case, but to have it laid out in such stark terms by a service provider who thinks they’re doing you a favour is depressing. As Dominic said, universities don’t do much to ensure their students’ success once they’ve graduated—even while you’re still a student, many will require you to undertake unpaid internships and consider that sufficient preparation to render you ready to enter the workforce.

It’s impossible to blame just one institution for this—universities that normalise working for free, employers that dismiss applicants for reasons as esoteric as not using the correct keywords in an application, job service providers that encourage people to sell themselves short, the government that oversees this entire system and does nothing except make it worse.

What’s even harder to do when you’re unemployed is remembering that the problem is bigger than you; keeping in mind that many, if not most, rejections are not personal—they’re not serving as a rejection of your entire being, or a dismissal of your value as a person. Unfortunately, when you’re barely coping, focusing on systemic issues feels impossible—directing your negative emotions inwards and nurturing that feeling of self-loathing is far easier, even if you know it’s unhealthy.

Time and time again, the people I spoke to described feelings of impostor syndrome, self-doubt, despair, and depression—overwhelmingly negative feelings that were even harder to overcome during lockdown. ‘’Cause I haven’t been able to see friends, I haven’t had the same kind of support that they would give I guess, so a rejection hurts more and takes longer to bounce back from,’ Regina told me.

The end of lockdown and the rediscovered ability to socialise is a double-edged sword for many unemployed people, however, as Regina said, ‘it’s been nice getting to see people again but I’m increasingly embarrassed to tell my friends that I’m still doing very little with my time’. How do you answer the simple question of how you are when your wellbeing is so determined by factors beyond your control? ‘I’m not okay, but I will be once I find a job/society stops associating people’s value with their ability to provide labour/we overthrow capitalism/the Sun explodes and destroys the universe’? That’s probably a bit much to blurt out over coffee. 


Image: the blowup

Catherine Bouris

Catherine Bouris is a writer based in Sydney. She can be found on Twitter @catherinebouris and pretty much everywhere else on the internet.

More by Catherine Bouris ›

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  1. A question that could be asked here is whether conceptualising our misery and despair at a depressionogenic society as hurting our mental health might be induced by the same political economic conditions that create that society. Distress, despair, misery, despondence, hopelessness, worthlessness, sadness, frustration, rage – these are the words that you see in books like Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Nowadays, such a book would almost certainly be framed in terms of mental ill-health. But I’d argue that such a framing can neuter, individualise, and cast solutions into the hands of a small group of professionals specialising in expert support. I would be less inclined to argue as such if the major mental health orgs tackled the social and economic underpinnings of distress but they don’t (that would compromise lucrative Gov. Contracts) so you have major youth mental health reports that describe unemployment as a secondary effect of mental ill health, or fail to mention that young people are the most debt ridden generation in Australian history. That said, the author captures well the sheer misery of being cast into the surplus labour holding pen.

  2. Doubtless you won’t want to read this right through, so I am saying first up that I am sorry the times they have a-changed for the worse. Maybe the likes of myself ruined it all for future generations. Days spent like capital on the dole were the some of the best days of my life – but you had to be a clever bludger – and not a stupid bludger – as the person under which I did my doley apprenticeship was want to insist. So, auditioned for jobs which I never got, but got a lot of writing done instead, as well as a good number of songs down – some of which I later turned into capital. Ah yes, blessed days in the sun, literally, at Tamarama, its beach and night life and all that Paddington jazz etc., with work appearing and disappearing just round the next corner, should I ever feel the want or dire need for it, which did come later, and set me up for life. Reading this though, the labour outcome for following generations under capital, makes me hang my head in crying shame.

  3. It’s great that you shared your experience and helped people understand it more by doing so. I agree that having a job is important, and losing it would have a significant negative effect on our emotional well-being. I appreciate you sharing this, and I think the time and effort you put into writing it will inspire a lot of people.

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