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Social support and self-esteem in unemployed university graduates.

Adolescence is usually defined as a period from puberty until full adult status has been attained. In modern societies this period appears to be prolonged, not only due to a longer period of education, but because of the increased length of time of unemployment afterwards. One of the consequences of unemployment is economic dependence, which makes it difficult for an adolescent to synchronize and to take full responsibility for the social roles expected at the end of adolescence, such as profession, spouse, and parent (Hultsch & Plemons, 1979).

Empirical research on the effects of unemployment undertaken in the 1930s, during and after the Great Depression, was mostly concerned with the material consequences (Feather, 1989). In the 1980s, when unemployment again became an issue, the focus of the studies changed to the psychological impact. The effects revealed by these studies included depression, lowered self-esteem, apathy, and self-doubt (Bachman, O'Malley, & Johnston, 1978; Feather, 1989). For example, Feather and Bond (1983) found that unemployed university graduates reported more depressive symptoms when compared with the employed sample. They also had lower self-esteem and were less organized and less purposeful in their use of time. Some other studies (Finlay-Jones & Eckhard, 1981; Kuzmanovic, 1985) indicated that between 30 to 40% of unemployed adolescents experience severe emotional problems.

The main purpose of the present study was to examine the relationship between the length of unemployment and level of self-esteem by unemployed Croatian graduate students. Most of the studies which have examined this relationship were carried out in countries where no such long-lasting social and economic crises exist as has recently been the case with Croatia. Given the poor economic conditions throughout the country and the large number of unemployed, it is possible that Croatian youths are less inclined to attribute failure to find a job to his or her own efforts and/or other personal qualities than do youth in more prosperous countries. Thus, the length of unemployment might have no effect on their self-esteem.

The second aim was to examine the role of social support in coping with unemployment, especially if it is long-lasting since it can be conceived as a stress-inducing condition. "Stress is viewed as a product of certain life events or conditions that can lead to a variety of consequences - coping efforts and defense strategies, feelings of distress, altered quality of functioning in major life roles, and psychological and physiological symptoms" (Lieberman, 1982, p. 766). Several studies have examined the role that social support from informal networks - family and friends - can play in stress reduction (Lieberman, 1982; Lempers & Clark-Lempers, 1990; Krause, 1990). It is generally assumed that social support can work as a stress buffer and thus modify the effects of stressful events that erode self-esteem and the sense of self-competence. This study examines that assumption.



The sample consisted of 98 unemployed university graduates (67 female and 31 male). Mean age was 27 years and 3 months. All respondents were registered at the Unemployment Registry Office in Zadar, Croatia.


In the first part of the questionnaire used, several items measured demographic variables.

Self-esteem. The subjects completed Rosenberg's Self-esteem Scale (1965), consisting of 10 items (e.g., "I feel I can't do anything right") rated on a 4-point scale. This scale has been extensively employed in self-esteem research, and its psychometric properties for the Croatian sample have been found satisfactory in a previous study (Bezinovic, 1988). Internal consistency, Chronbach's alpha, in the present sample was also high, .72.

Life satisfaction. The general feelings of happiness and satisfaction with one's life was assessed by the Life-Satisfaction Scale (Bezinovic, 1988), which consists of 7 items (e.g., "In general, I am a happy person"). Internal consistency of this scale was .78.

Social support. The instrument for assessment of social support was constructed especially for this study. Respondents were asked to indicate on a 6-point scale the degree of support they receive from a standard set of reference persons: parents, friend, partner, and sibling(s). Factor analyses were conducted separately for each reference person. In each case the analysis resulted in a three-factor solution: Emotional support (4 items, e.g., "Comforts me when I am upset"); Instrumental support-Advice giving (3 item, e.g., "Offers me advice when I am confronted with important decisions"); and Instrumental support-Practical assistance (3 items, e.g., "Does things for me when I am busy"). The reliabilities of the Emotional support scale were .59, .62, .67, and .63 for parents, friend, partner, and sibling(s), respectively. In the same order, alphas for the Instrumental support-Advice giving scale were .52, .52, .59, and .57. Since Alphas for the Instrumental support-Practical assistance were lower, this scale was dropped from further analyses.


Subjects were first grouped into three categories according to length of unemployment: the first consisted of persons who had been unemployed for less than 6.5 months (n = 22); the second group included persons whose unemployment varied from 6.6 to 18.5 months (n = 39), and the third group included persons whose unemployment had lasted longer than 18.6 months (n = 37). Length of unemployment was related to two demographic variables: age (r = .56, p [less than] .01). and marital status (r = .29, p [less than] .05).

The first question was whether self-esteem of unemployed graduates is related to the length of unemployment. Contrary to expectations and previous findings with this same instrument indicating that self-esteem tends to decrease as a function of long unemployment, the analysis of variance in the present sample showed no such effect, F(2,95) = .43, n.s. There was no relationship between length of unemployment and self-esteem. Similarly, there were no differences between the three groups in general life satisfaction (Table 1).

The next step in data analysis was to examine the relative effects of possible determinants of self-esteem. The predictors consisted of the two sets of variables: demographic (sex, age, marital status, housing condition, profession, financial situation, and length of unemployment), and social support (emotional and instrumental support of parents, friend, partner, and siblings). A stepwise regression analysis was conducted with self-esteem as the criterion variable. In the first step all predictor variables were entered, and then in each of the following steps the predictors were eliminated from the regression until the deletion of a predictor in the next step yielded a significant decrement in the explained variance. The variables that remained as significant predictors in the last step were instrumental support of the parents and of the partner (Table 2). Thus, there is a possibility that social support functions as a buffer against the negative effects of unemployment on self-esteem. If this is the case, then social support should increase with length of employment. But, as Table 1 shows, no differences were found between the three groups on the social support measures.

Table 2

Summary of Regression Analyses with Self-esteem as Criterion (last
step backwards)

Predictor R Beta F (1,95)

Instrumental support - parents .19 .18 3.57(*)
Instrumental support - partner .21 .21 4.47(*)

* p [less than] .05.


Contrary to previous findings (Bachman et al., 1978; Feather & Bond, 1983), in this study no relationship between length of unemployment and self-esteem and general life satisfaction was found. Apart from the possible explanation for these findings noted earlier - regarding the differences between countries in which the research is done - several other explanations can account for these results.

First, most of the subjects in this study had majored in social studies. For these young people especially, unemployment can be regarded as a normative, rather than an unexpected event, given the high unemployment rate in these fields.

Second, the subjects were university graduates and they may have been able to maintain a relatively high level of self-esteem in the face of unemployment because of their past record of achievement.

Third, length of unemployment was positively correlated with marital status, i.e., many who were long-term unemployed were married during this period. Finding a partner and taking on the role of spouse is also one of the developmental tasks of late adolescence (Havighurst, 1953). Success in this task may mitigate the failure to succeed in the other - finding a job. An indication for the importance of the partner is the finding that the instrumental (advice giving) support of the partner predicts the adolescent's self-esteem. The role as spouse may also help the unemployed to organize and structure their time and daily activities. Feather and Bond (1983) showed that unemployed university graduates who lack purpose and time structure in their lives have lower self-esteem than those who reported relatively few difficulties in how they used their time.

Fourth, 68% of the subjects were female. Warr, Jackson, and Banks (1982) found that unemployed women showed less employment commitment and higher psychological well-being in spite of longer unemployment. Feather and Bond (1983) also report that male students had a higher employment importance score than did female students. Though job importance is not measured in this study, it is possible that a high proportion of our sample regards having a job as less important than other aspects of their lives (e.g., having a family).

Fifth, these young people are seeking work for the first time. Thus, it is possible that the initial difficulties of finding a job may have less effect on self-esteem than in cases of job loss (Kuzmanovic, 1985). Bezinovic (1988) showed that unemployed graduates who have lost their job have lower self-esteem than do the employed group. This is consistent with findings on the effects of job disruption (Feather, 1989).

Regarding the function of social support in the period of unemployment, the analyses proved not very informative. Social support of the parents and the partner were related to self-esteem, but no differences were found between the graduates who differ in length of unemployment with regard to the social support they obtain.

Finally, it is important to note that the present study concerned the effects of unemployment among university graduates, and the question remains whether the findings would be different with samples of unemployed young people from a different population.


Bachman, J. G., O'Malley, P. M., & Johnston, J. (1978). Adolescence to adulthood. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan.

Bezinovic, P. (1988). Percepcija osobne kompetentnosti kao dimenzija samopoimanja [Perceived competence as a dimension of self-concept]. Unpublished doctoral dissertation.

Feather, N. T. (1989). Reported changes in behavior after job loss in a sample of older unemployed men. Australian Journal of Psychology, 41, 175-185.

Feather, N. T., & Bond, M. J. (1983). Time structure and purposeful activity among employed and unemployed university graduates. Journal of Occupational Psychology, 56, 241-254.

Finlay-Jones, R. A., & Eckhard, B. (1981). Psychiatric disorders among the young unemployed. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Personality, 15, 265-270.

Havighurst, R. J. (1953). Human development and education. New York: Longmans.

Hutsch, D. F., & Plemons, J. K. (1979). Life events and life-span development. In P. B. Baltes, & O. G. Brimm (Eds.), Life-span development and behavior, Vol. 2 (pp. 1-31). New York: Academic Press.

Krause, N. (1990). Stress measurement. Stress Medicine, 6, 201-208.

Kuzmanovic, B. (1985). Nezaposlenost kao socijalno-psiholoski problem [Unemployment as a social-psychological problem]. Marksisticka misao, 4, 30-51.

Lempers, J. D., & Clark-Lempers, D. (1990). Family economic stress, maternal and paternal support and adolescent distress. Journal of Adolescence, 13, 217-229.

Lieberman, M. (1982). The effects of social supports and responses to stress. In L. Goldberger, & S. Breznitz (Eds.), Handbook of stress (pp. 764-783). New York: Free Press.

Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Warr, P. B., Jackson, P. R., & Banks, M. H. (1982). Duration of unemployment and psychological well-being in young men and women. Current Psychological Research, 2, 207-214.

Katica Lackovic-Grgin, Ph.D., Developmental Psychologist; Branko Milosavlijevic, Ph.D., Social Psychologist; Izabela Cvek-Soric, Research Assistant; Goran Opacic, Research Assistant, Department of Psychology, University of Split, Croatia.

Reprint requests to Maja Dekovic, Ph.D., Department of Youth, Family, and Life Course, Utrecht University, P.O. Box 80.140, 3508 TC Utrecht, The Netherlands.
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Author:Lackovic-Grgin, Katica; Dekovic, Maja; Milosavljevic, Branko; Cvek-Soric, Izabela; Opacic, Goran
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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