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Long-term unemployment can change your view of your own abilities

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A man enters a store where a "Now Hiring" sign is prominently displayed.

Job loss during the pandemic — already an isolating time — can have a negative impact on a person's self-worth and future job prospects. Tim Boyle via Getty Images

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A recent Pew survey says about half of the unemployed adults in the U.S. are pessimistic about their future employment, and more than half have experienced mental health issues like anxiety or depression. These factors can create a less predictable back-to-work economy.

Bea Leiderman is a high school teacher in Virginia, teaching computers and coding. Her daughter has an autoimmune disease, so when her school mandated that teachers come back to work last August, she decided to quit.

“I really thought I could find something, even if it was part-time employment,” Leiderman said.

She applied to software companies that work with schools, but she has no sales experience. She applied to teach Spanish, which she’s taught before, and still had no bites. She applied for jobs that have nothing to do with computers or teaching, including an hourly position at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“I really lost hope. You just have so much time with just your thoughts. And it eats you up,” Leiderman said.

Losing a job is already isolating, said Art Goldsmith, an economist at Washington and Lee University. Then there’s the isolation of the pandemic itself.

“That has created a lot of poor mental health, more so in this recession than in previous recessions,” he said.

Long-term unemployment changes how people feel about their worth as workers. Before the pandemic, Sarah Damaske, a sociologist at Penn State, followed people who lost their jobs.

“By the 12-month mark, they were describing themselves as having fewer and fewer jobs that they felt that they were qualified for,” Damaske said.

This can create a pattern. Someone gets a job below his or her skill level or one that has nothing to do with their skills. They’re unhappy and leave or are let go because they were never a good fit. And then they’re back out there searching.

“It’s devastating for their career in the long run,” Damaske said. “Each time they scramble and find something and fail, they fall further and further behind.”

That’s not the case for Leiderman, though. Next month she’ll start teaching computer classes again. But the new job comes with a compromise: the commute. It’s 50 miles, each way.

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