Associated Study: Understanding the impact of recession on labour market behaviour in Britain

This Associated Study used Understanding Society to explore the impact that recession has on couples households in terms of labour market participation, working hours and sharing paid and unpaid employment.  

This Associated Study was carried out by:

  • Mark Taylor, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex
  • Heather Laurie, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex
  • Karon Gush, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex

During the economic downturn that began in 2007/8, the unemployment rate did not rise to the same levels as in previous UK recessions but households witnessed the steepest fall in living standards for several decades. Any job loss or reduction in paid work is a potential threat to the economic stability of a household but it may be even more so in times of squeezed household budgets. This project aimed to investigate the impact of recession on couple households in terms of: 

  • Labour market participation and working hours.
  • How paid and unpaid work is shared between couples.
  • The coping strategies used to weather periods of economic uncertainty.
  • The processes and motivations behind couples’ responses to their changed circumstances.

Using the wealth of longitudinal information in the Understanding Society Innovation Panel, 123 couple households were identified where someone had either lost their job or were working reduced hours in the period 2008 to 2011. A carefully selected sample of 17 households were followed up and in-depth interviews were conducted with the couple-member who had experienced job loss and, where possible, their partner. The selection process was designed to assemble a sample reflecting a diverse range of household and family profiles; namely, couples with and without children, older and younger children; the pre-retirement phase; a range of incomes; and labour market areas more and less affected by the recession. Wherever feasible, partners were interviewed separately to allow each participant the opportunity to express their personal views most freely. Overall this led to 30 interviews, each of about 45 minutes in length.

Key findings:

  • Respondents didn’t always see job loss coming, sometimes despite numerous outward indicators of potential job loss. A common response was to avoid acting pro-actively on observable signs in the simple hope that if there are redundancies they wouldn’t be affected.  This behaviour was evident in both those who had experienced redundancy and those who were at risk of redundancy.
  • The extent to which respondents adopted short-term approaches (e.g., taking the first job that came long) or long-term approaches depended very much on circumstances and preferences. Some spoke about ‘panic’ and needing to do something immediately; others used the opportunity to rethink their lives. Some felt that the industry they worked in necessitated a quick return to work, i.e., even the most temporary of absences from the workplace can be detrimental to careers in certain professions.
  • Unless part of a welcome lifestyle change, couples were reluctant to revise the way they shared paid and unpaid work. Men were typically not keen to take on domestic chores and women not keen to increase job hours, even where that was possible. Other income smoothing techniques – ‘cutting down’ on general household expenditure/leisure activities, restructuring finances, drawing on savings and money from family were used to handle loss of earnings.

Previous quantitative evidence on the extent to which female spouses supplement household finances via additional paid labour in times of male job loss has produced mixed findings. This qualitative research suggests that this is not that surprising as couple’s preferences and goals are key determinants of how they react to job loss.  Drawing on spousal labour as a response to unemployment is only one response amongst a set of alternatives and couples may prefer to exhaust all other alternatives before changing their share of paid and unpaid work.

Read the research

Gush, K., Scott, J. and Laurie, H. (2015). Households’ responses to spousal job loss: ‘all change’ or ‘carry on as usual’?   Work, Employment and Society 29(5): 703-719

Gush, K., Scott, J. and Laurie, H. (2015). Job loss and social capital: the role of family, friends and wider support networks. ISER Working Paper Series. 

What is an Associated Study?

An Associated Study is an opportunity for individual researchers or organisations to collect information from Understanding Society respondents that has not already been asked in the survey. They provide the opportunity for new cross-disciplinary and mixed methods research.