Expert Comment: Unemployment could undermine social trust in Europe

Take a moment to think about your activities today. You may have used public transport to go to work, paid for lunch using a credit card, or left your bag in an open plan office. All these activities rely on social trust – the feeling strangers can be trusted.

Social trust is fundamental to life in contemporary societies, as it facilitates cooperation with people we do not know – bus drivers, shopkeepers, and colleagues and so on. But there are troubling signs for the labour market – and for social trust.

Dr Leo Azzollini, Postdoctoral Researcher at Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science and Department of Social Policy.

The most recent Economic Activity and Social Change in the UK Reports suggest a slowdown in several labour market indicators in the past year. My recent study analysed data from 29 European countries and more than 200 sub-regions, including the UK, and found unemployment affects social trust over time.

While a short-term economic recession is unlikely to shake collective faith in society, regions with high-unemployment rates may be stuck in a ‘trap’ with persistently low levels of social trust.

But this does not mean everything is fine in low-unemployment regions – far from it. If you lose your job in an area where unemployment is low, such as the South East and South West of the UK, you are more likely to be stigmatised by those close to you and wider society, when compared to regions with high unemployment rates, such as those in Southern Italy and Spain.

Predicted Levels of Generalised Social Trust, Author elaboration from European Social Survey Data (2008-2018). In regions where the average unemployment is low (such as South-East England), people who have experienced unemployment (Long Scar) have lower social trust than those who have never been unemployed (No Scar). However, in regions where the average unemployment is very high (over 10%, such as Southern Italy), unemployment experiences do not matter, as social trust is lower in general.

The stigma of unemployment can leave a long-lasting scar, even many years after finding another job, and is more common in populous regions of Europe such as Bavaria and capitals including Amsterdam, Bratislava, Oslo, and Prague.

Unemployment is, therefore, double trouble when it comes to social trust, which is essential for international solidarity during times of crisis such as isolating during the COVID-19 pandemic, a looming recession and striking inflation – as well as for everyday life in the 21st century.

Unemployment is double trouble when it comes to social trust, which is essential for international solidarity

If a vicious cycle between unemployment and social distrust arises, it could be difficult to break, with potentially dire effects for social cohesion and even for democracy.

Policy-makers need to consider carefully worsening labour markets together with the entire socio-economic and political scenario. A difficult winter to come, with soaring energy prices and international turbulence, may undermine our trust in strangers – and society.

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