5.1. Job Insecurity, Functions of Work and Well-Being
In line with the international literature (Baranowska and Gebel 2010
), unemployment leaves a mark on the interviewees’ lives, with traces persisting even after the period of unemployment has ended: the interviews reveal a sense of malaise and depressive moods, related to a feeling of disheartenment because of poor labour market prospects.
For Luigi (29, M, ME, NCJ1
), for example, the most difficult moment was when he was laid off and left without an income: a period of six months which had an extremely negative impact on his well-being.
In some interviews, people attribute a fundamental instrumental function to work in supporting the thinking about their identity in the present and in the future. The main issue is related to a sense of hopelessness. Mara (Mara, 30, F, ME, U) said that she feels depressed because of her jobless status, which ties up with a sense of failure, disenchantment, malaise and an increasing state of neglect and surrender. A feeling of deep sadness and frustration caused by failing to find a new job emerges from her interview, but also from the narratives of Concita (23, F, ME, U): this translates into looking to the future with despair and pessimism, or, in the words of Mara, feeling that ‘you do not have a future’.
In line with Jahoda’s idea that work gives a time structure to personal life, and that this can create a comfort zone, in some interviews, the feeling of disorientation concerns the present time. Tommaso (22, M, ME, U) talked about how, in the second week of unemployment, the lack of work meant he had too much free time, which he was unable to appreciate: the days were all empty and every one was exactly the same.
In the case of Emma, a young interviewee, well-being is related to the economic autonomy gained through work, even if in a precarious situation: however, this well-being is closely linked to the immediate present (Emma, 20, F, ME, TE).
In other interviews, work is mainly considered a fundamental instrument of identity construction, as long as it is compatible with family and private life.
For Antonio, after an experience of school largely characterised by episodes of malaise, work, even if insecure, represents a source of satisfaction, also because he lives with a focus on the present, without thinking too much about the future. The reason for this work-related well-being derives from the fact that he perceives that he is capable and that his abilities are acknowledged.
Yes, this one I like. Because anyway it’s not a job where you sweat and so on. But, apart from that, I enjoy it because it seems, apart from the fact that I like it, it seems I have the right skills to do certain things, I feel good there.
(Antonio, 19, M, LE, TE)
Work, in fact, can be a source of well-being, even when it is not ’secure’: having a meaningful work (Steger and Dik 2009
), consistent with one’s personal interests and values, can lead to a feeling of satisfaction, as in Franco’s words:
… working, if you’re doing a job you like, even makes you feel good about yourself, you fill your time usefully. And this is what I was looking for, basically; I was looking for a job which (…) gave me something, let’s say, yes, something like, it also helped me to grow.
(Franco, 30, M, HE, NCJ)
Chiara, too, describes her cash-in-hand job as an element of well-being, because it corresponds to her own interest in working in the fashion industry, and follows on from a difficult period in her life plagued by personal problems and a negative situation at work, where her boss was particularly demanding:
I went through quite a difficult time, I was really frustrated. I mean, now I almost feel like I’m coming out of a tunnel, so… […] I mean, I had my fashion project, I had my… fashion line… my own small jobs, it’s not that I was completely… without a thing.
(Chiara, F, 28, ME, NCJ)
Ionela also reports predominantly positive experiences. Originally from Latvia, Ionela is 25 years old and recently started a new job, with a fixed-term contract, with an event management company. She is dynamic, motivated and draws satisfaction from her current job, which seems to her to be an excellent opportunity. She appreciates all aspects of her job, above all the relational side, the fact that she moves in an international environment, and also the challenge to grow professionally:
I like everything. I like the people, because we are very international, from all parts of the world… there are some really very nice people, and it’s also interesting because the new level in my career, with goals, you see the goals to follow, it’s not just a job to do so you can say ‘OK, I get home at the end of the month I’ve got the money’, no, you work with an idea, that’s why I really like it. This is the motivation.
(Ionela, F, 25, HE, TE)
In the narratives of these Italian youth, especially for people with medium–high educational qualifications, even in conditions of contractual insecurity, a strong focus on work as an identity-building tool seems not only to mitigate the negative effects of insecurity on well-being, but also nurtures work engagement and performing work-related tasks to build a positive state of mind (Bakker and Demerouti 2017
This effect disappears when youth experience a destructive leadership (Molino et al. 2019
): through an excessive increase in workload and a despotic style, destructive leaders generate emotional exhaustion and produce the intention to quit the job. In this case, the work that has the power to undermine well-being: Concita, for example, describes her experiences of work for a photographer, as both very hard and frustrating:
Working at a call centre was psychologically exhausting… so much so that when I got home I didn’t want to talk to anyone. […] The worst experience was with the photographer… (laughs) The owner of the shop has traumatised me.
(Concita, F, 23, ME, U)
Katia (28 years old, currently unemployed) experienced malaise and chose to leave the job, even though it offered her the opportunity for professional growth: the environment was characterised by a despotic leadership and a negative atmosphere, high demands and little collaboration or support, so she decided to leave her job and to look for a better one (without any guarantee of being able to find it where she lived, Catania, a context characterised by a very weak labour market), that would allow her to feel well at work.
I signed a contract for 3 months, but then 10 days ago, I decided that… I had to choose between work and feeling all right, and I chose to feel all right.
(Katia, F, 28, HE, U)
5.2. Coping Strategies
5.2.1. Micro-Level Coping Strategies
Job search is a specific kind of problem-focused coping strategy related to job insecurity, covering a wide spectrum of micro-strategies. Looking for a job by sending out CVs is, literally, an ‘active’ coping strategy but in some cases, this can generate malaise, in accordance to others quantitative studies (Giunchi et al. 2019
I took my CV everywhere (…) I’d turn round to leave, and out of the corner of my eye, I’d see that my CV had been shredded.
(Aurelio, 23, M, ME, TE)
In fact, in some cases, a wide range of emotions are associated with the process of searching for a job: Renata’s current self-representation, for example, is characterised by a sort of ambivalence (optimistic but also worried), linked to her having enthusiasm but, at the same time, being afraid of not knowing what to do, considering that all her peers are in a very similar situation. The result is a rollercoaster of emotions:
I mean I feel inside myself like I have two personalities: on the one hand, I tell myself: ‘Oh my God there I’ll do it! I’m scared! Not… eee…’ But on the other I say: ‘But at this point I have to do it’ (…)
(Renata, 22, F, ME, U)
It seems that when people do not have a strong career identity and the focus is mainly on economic and structuration of life functions of work, people strive to search for a job, whatever it is, without any strategy of identification and contact with possible employers. This strategy is rarely successful, increasing the experiences of malaise associated with the employment condition.
Renata, like other interviewees, highlights the comparison with her peers and, in doing so, relativises her condition of job insecurity.
I’m in the same boat as my peers, and I think it is a time of life that all people have been through
(Renata, 22, F, ME, U)
Others seek to ’escape’ the psychological discontent associated with the impossibility of getting a sense of fulfilment from their job in their own country by planning to emigrate. This is, for example, the case of Gaia, who is planning to follow her American boyfriend to the USA. However, while, on the one hand, she describes this strategy as necessary for her personal fulfilment and in order to live happily, on the other, she does not hide the malaise and the emotional costs which she would experience in a ‘forced’ emigration:
I wouldn’t not like to leave Sicily because it’ is my home, my place, but/what can I do/? (Bitterly) It’s spirit of survival! […]/However you cannot bring a person to the point of marrying another person just because here, in Sicily, there is no life and a future/(said quietly).
(Gaia, 24, F, ME, U)
Emotion-focused coping strategies (Lazarus and Folkman 1984
) are used exclusively or as an accompaniment to problem-focused strategies, to limit the negative emotional consequences of insecurity, but also of frustration, due to the absence of results related to job search with weak strategies. Some people seek to offset a low income with fun opportunities as a way of coping emotionally with the working situation and attaining some kind of ‘short-term happiness‘. For Erika (29, F, LE, U), this can simply mean being able to treat herself to a pizza or a dish of pasta in a restaurant once in a while.
In order to reach a state of well-being, some people search for a compensation outside the work domain, pursuing hobbies or doing voluntary work: in this sense, art, music and sport are considered effective coping tools by the interviewees. Only one interviewee (Margherita, 24, F, ME, U) mentioned turning to a psychologist for support.
Also avoidance and denial are (no)-coping strategies cited in interviews: in many cases, to overcome the feeling of being crushed, and subsequently of not being able to look beyond the present, the interviewees reported using a particular strategy to ‘avoid thinking about the present’, in order to cope with the anxiety and concern associated with the insecurity of their job.
That is the case of Aurelio (23, M, ME, TE) who, as a defence against anxiety, avoids thinking about the present or what the situation will be in the future. In the previous cited case of Luigi, the loss of structure of life in the unemployment period was such a traumatic experience that he is unable to reconstruct it accurately, as if a process of denial has come into play:
I mean, I think this… this condition has affected my mind so much that I’m tending to forget!
(Luigi, 29, M, ME, NCJ)
If Luigi forgets the past, Emma cancels the thought of the future. To cope with the worry about the future, the only solution is a cognitive restructuring of the life perspective, trying not to think about the future and to remain grounded in the present:
I mean, I try to keep calm and not think about it, because if you always live with a knot in your stomach, about everything. Sometimes it’s better to think about it but not too much, because otherwise you get really paranoid, worry about everything and you never get to live.
(Emma, 20, F, ME, TE)
In other cases, the thought of sharing the same employment situation with their contemporaries, and of being exposed to the same risks (including to health) serves as a micro coping strategy to emotionally and mentally control dissatisfaction, and to prevent insecurity and the lack of work from giving rise to severe malaise. For example, Ester (26, F, ME, NCJ) thinks that she shares this discomfort with many of her peers, and feels that she does not want to end up like many young people who develop full-blown psychological conditions. She has therefore tried to rid herself of her discomfort, so as not to fall victim to panic attacks and the need for medication.
When work has a strong identity value, on the other hand, rather than denying precariousness, young people accentuate the advantages related precisely to the opportunity to express self-components, and to live in a rich relational context: is the case of Franco (30, M, HE, TE), who seeks to enhance the positive aspects of his job despite its precariousness.
5.2.2. Meso-Level Coping Strategies
In line with the studies describing the Italian context as characterised by a ”familistic welfare regime” (Esping-Andersen 1999
), where the family ties are socially assumed to have—and in practice do have—a very strong role in protecting its members by vary kinds of social and economic risks, family (of origin, and in certain cases also uncles and aunts, grandparents or peers such as cousins) appears to be the most significant source of emotional and psychological support for our young interviewees.
For example, Mara is looking for a job and says she is depressed:
Not finding anything has made me feel very low//of course//and so… … I’ve also been through periods of depression… […] It’s a weight, yes sure, especially now that I’m thirty years old//Of course//yes sure, I’d say that at the moment I’m suffering from depression….
(Mara, 30, F, ME, U)
Her parents are doing their best to support her psychologically and emotionally at a time when she feels bad about not having a job. Her family’s emotional support is so important to her that it is preventing her from considering the idea of emigrating to find work:
To be honest, I have no desire to go abroad, because my family is here//mhm//… so many people go, maybe I don’t have the guts… let’s put it that way […] why should I have to go?
(Mara, 29, F, ME, U)
Likewise, Renata (22, F, ME, U), who describes herself as an energetic and optimistic girl, turns to her family of origin for considerable support, and it is there that she finds the motivation and encouragement to carry on without becoming depressed by the challenges of the labour market. She is still well-integrated within the environment in which she lives, thanks to strong and significant protection given by her family of origin, which appears to be financially and emotionally stable.
While many of the interviewees stated that they have turned to, and greatly appreciate, the emotional support of their families of origin, a fair number basically consider this inadequate to contain the malaise associated with their employment situation, albeit acknowledging that this support impacts positively on their well-being and mental stability.
For example, Camilla (23, F, ME, NCJ), who, for the moment, is satisfied with her present living conditions (she lives in the countryside with both parents and one sister in a detached house built by her parents), has a strong desire to leave her parents’ home and move in with her boyfriend. She would have liked to have left her parents’ home before, when she was about 20, but was unable to go and live with her boyfriend, because of her employment situation.
In some cases, despite appreciating the support provided by the family, the interviewees consider this to be ineffective for coping with the real cause of their malaise, namely being out of work; for example, Franco said:
My mum… I mean, she tries to help me, to support me… but for how I am, these are words that don’t work with me. You feel like a looser, useless… It’s bad. […] what would make the situation less complicated, is a job.
(Franco, 29, M, HE, NCJ)
But not always the family atmosphere is so supportive from an emotional point of view, therefore, in these cases, being ‘forced’ to live with the family of origin because they are unable to be independent, in terms of having a home of their own, given the unstable employment situation, emerges as a real source of tension and malaise among the young interviewees. This, for example, is the case for Erika, who is stressed because she has to do most of the daily chores (this is also why she would very much like to leave the parental home):
I do everything. My mother can’t do it. She’s the kind of person who gets confused and […] She’s lazy. […] I understand that she has all her physical ailments, BUT SHE MUST MOVE BECAUSE SHE’S LAZY! […] And I try to be patient/(venting her feelings).
(Erika, 29, F, LE, U)
Other interviewees experiencing a situation of tension in the family of origin who are not supportive, utilise different channels and relationships to cope with the malaise and the sense of dissatisfaction with their employment circumstances. For example, Tamara, who lives in Catania in Southern Italy, a territorial context where the proportion of practicing believers is higher than the North (Istat 2016
), says she derives some comfort and peace of mind from going to church with her family, from whom she also receives some basic financial and practical support:
We started to attend church during a difficult time in our lives; we try to relax a bit in church.
(Tamara, 23, F, ME, U)
According to Istat
) the share of practising believers is 33.5% in Southern Italy, 27.7% in the North-West, 26.8%, in the North-East and 25.0% in the Centre. Sicily, where Catania is located, is the Italian region with the highest religious practice (37.3%). In our sample of interviewees, the half of youth in Turin declared that they were atheist, only three declared that they practiced some religion (catholic, protestant or Islam), while the other 10 did not answer the question on religious affiliation; in Catania, the share of young interviewees explicitly declaring that they were atheist was much lower (only two out of 15), while 12 out of 15 declared themselves Catholic.
In certain cases, even, or above all, friends (or boy/girlfriends) are a source of emotional and psychological support. For example, one of Antonio’s important points of reference is a friend who is two years older than him, and the only one who is already in employment, because the others are all still in school. Although he cannot discuss work with the latter, he still receives their support, which he considers crucial at a psychological level in his transition from student life to that of a worker, which requires greater commitment.
5.2.3. Macro-Level Coping Strategies
As mentioned in Section 2
, the system of public policies and institutions in a specific national context can provide the individuals with a set of possible strategies to deal with their job insecurity experiences.
Among those who seek and/or receive support from public institutions in order to deal with health and well-being issues linked to their employment situation, Gaia (24, F, ME, U) reported a very positive experience: she found work through the Youth Guarantee programme (and a ’role’, she said).
Erika’s point of view is similar. She found her last job thanks to the Youth Guarantee programme. This is the job she has held for the longest time in her fragmented ten-year working life, and also the best paid (500 euros a month). She was very enthusiastic about this job and she considers it the best working experience in her life. She would have liked to continue that experience; unfortunately—she said—the factory was not able to employ her after the six-month period of paid training and she was dismissed.
Max (27, M, ME, PE), too, is satisfied that he made use of the institutional channel to cope with his situation. He is very satisfied with the courses, because he thinks that they had a significant impact on his life and well-being. The factory work started to become a passion and he tried to change jobs, leaving the company and going into a confectionery shop.
While there are no shortages of cases like the ones cited above—of appreciation of the possibilities afforded by macro strategies to cope with their malaise—many interviewees declared that they have no faith in the ability of politicians and institutions to improve their situation. At times, lines of argument such as these seem to be an ‘excuse’ to avoid being proactive and developing so-called macro coping strategies. Several of these young people said they are not entirely convinced that the institutions are interested in doing anything practical to help youth. At times, the interviewees drew on the direct experience of their peers for want of any of their own, on other occasions, their negative evaluation of macro coping strategies was based on their own direct experience of such strategies and their negative outcomes. Many interviewees, especially those based in Catania, reported that, after completing the Youth Guarantee online application form, they were never contacted by the Employment Office for an interview. Others reported that there was too much bureaucracy involved in order to start and complete the Youth Guarantee internship. Other interviewees who attended courses organised by regional government public training institutes found them to be very disorganised, and this left a bad impression, which made them decide to quit the course after only a few days. As for the Employment Offices, some interviewees like Anna (27, F, HE, TE) tried to use them, but found they did not respond to their specific needs and, moreover, they did not provide enough and adequate information.