Finding Meaning in Unemployment

Unemployment is a huge barrier to our country achieving its full potential. It will probably also become a pivotal theme in the upcoming American elections. In our national values assessment last year thousands of South Africans countrywide voted for ‘employment opportunities’ and ‘poverty reduction’ to be in the top five desired values for SA.

Participants also placed ‘unemployed’ and ‘poverty’ in fifth and sixth places respectively when asked about the top ten current values and barriers in South Africa. Attitude is a huge part of human existence. Ideally what should the attitude of an unemployed person be?  In this edition we asked Vivien Roberts to write, in a positive way, about our unemployment crisis.

“The National Planning Commission diagnostic report argues that if a young person does not get a job by age 24, he is unlikely to get a job” said Mildred Oliphant, Minister of Labour, at the 12th ILO African Regional Meeting.  Amukelani Chauke reported that the actual number of unemployed people In South Africa could be between 6 – 8 million.   The Sunday Times editorial at the launching of the “Each One Hire One” campaign stated that retrenchment will always be a part of corporate life, yet Sure Kamhunga reminded us that more than 820,000 skilled posts are unfilled and more than 600,000 graduates are unemployed.

What are the psychological ramifications of this unemployment crisis and what can we do to counteract it?

Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl argued that a specific type of depression is triggered by socio-economic conditions that result in high unemployment.   He diagnosed what he termed “unemployment neurosis” in cases of young people who were jobless.  Being unemployed, he said, equated with being useless, which was equated with having a meaningless life.  Frankl went on to state that the mass neurotic syndrome so pervasive in the young generation was due to an existential vacuum, feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness.  

A great leader, Gordon B. Hinckley had this to say: “A man out of work is of special moment…because deprived of his inheritance, he is on trial…for his integrity.  As the days lengthen into weeks and months and even years of adversity, the hurt grows deeper; and he is sorely tempted to ‘curse God and die’.  Continued economic dependence breaks him.  It humiliates him if he is strong, spoils him if he is weak.  Sensitive or calloused, despondent or indifferent, rebellious or resigned – either way he is threatened with spiritual ruin; for the dole is an evil and idleness a curse.  He soon becomes the seedbed of discontent, wrong thinking (and) alien beliefs.”

Unemployment neurosis has three facets – depression, aggression and addiction.   Suicide is the fastest growing, and second leading cause of death among 15 – 25 year-olds in South Africa with 9.5% of all teen deaths being due to suicide.  Over 20% of high school teenagers are depressed and had considered suicide in the last month (National Youth Risk Survey)

South Africa’s crime statistics including comparison of data on violence in South Africa and other countries, demonstrates convincingly that ours is amongst the most violent countries in the world.  Aggressive behaviour in South Africa is a symptom of many socio-economic problems including poverty, unemployment, corruption, affirmative action, crime and illiteracy.  

Addiction and substance abuse are a mammoth problem in South Africa, breaking down our society, aggravating poverty and crime, and contributing to child abuse and gender violence.

Responsibility for job-creation does not rest solely on government and business; the largest portion rests with us, individually.  We all have a need to feel useful and to live with purpose and meaning; our value is in our function.  Frankl stated that if our circumstances don’t provide meaning, we can initiate the change process by incorporating into our lives the following three approaches:

First – create a work or do a deed 

Second – experience something or encounter someone (meaning can be found not only in work but also in love)

Third – as a victim of a hopeless situation, or when facing a fate which you cannot change, change yourself.   This is how personal tragedies are turned into triumphs

Below are some practical ideas that can get you started on your job search and help you harness your unique set of skills, knowledge, talent and potential capacity.  They may even result in job opportunities.   If followed, these suggestions will create meaning in your job search and you can start right now – this very minute:

Awareness – become aware of your thinking and the thinking of others.  What are your beliefs about yourself?  How judgemental are you – of yourself and others?     Are you obsessed with fearful thoughts regarding being unemployed?   Do you find yourself unconsciously sabotaging potential opportunities?  Notice the negative emotional fallout that flows from a single stressful thought.

Explore – explore yourself and your environment to assess what you have and what you may need to change.  Discover the unique abilities that you have to offer.  What and where can you contribute right now?  What can you change about your approach to job-searching?   Who can help you?  What opportunities and resources can you take advantage of right away?   Discover new ways to demonstrate your skills and attributes, then translate those behaviours into evidence to present to potential employers.  

Initiate encounters – with friends, neighbours and leaders.  Don’t wait for others to set up interviews, approach them.  Prepare questions and take the lead in these interviews.  Ask about what they do, how they got their job, what qualifications are needed, what software they use, what training is offered, whether bursaries are available, what advice they have.  Take notes.  Stop “looking for a job” and “get on with a job”.

Volunteer – your time, talents and labour.   Schools, libraries, orphanages and homes for the elderly will appreciate your skills.  Start a soccer team in your community or offer extra lessons to neighbours.  Donate your services to the local clinic?   Volunteer in youth organisations, or offer to teach in adult basic education programs.  Fill your abundant free time with meaningful experiences that will offer opportunities for growth.

Take control – of yourself, your thinking and your experiences.  Be as independent as possible.  Offer work in return for favours.  Negotiate labour in return for food, shelter or other commodities.  Grow your own food – in gardens, containers or at someone else’s location.   Demonstrate that you are proactive, a problem-solver and that you think ‘out the box’.    Rise above yourself.  Your observable behaviour will provide evidence that you take responsibility, and that you don’t blame and complain.  Be driven from your centre, taking the lead, living with meaning and acting out your dreams. 

Stepping out of cycles of defeat and establishing new behaviours takes courage, discipline and effort.  We owe it to ourselves to transcend patterns of behaviour that hold us back.  Dr. Abraham J. Twerski in his book Happiness and the Human Spirit, says at the core of every human being there is a nucleus of self-respect and dignity, a desire for self-fulfilment that will always break through.  Individual purpose and meaning will unfold, even if our economic situations take a while to improve.  Taking this course of action will help us avoid being victims and in the process also facilitate our personal and professional development – it is inevitable.  Through the process of changing our hearts and choosing our attitudes we will deliberately design our destinies.  We will make that extraordinary offering to the national economy.

This article appeared in the:

The Workplace

Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022

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