Yesterday once more? Unemployment and health inequalities across the life course in northern Sweden
Umeå universitet. Institutionen för folkhälsa och klinisk medicin; Background. It is relatively well established in previous research that unemployment has direct health consequences in terms of mental and physical ill health. Recently, knowledge has emerged indicating that unemployment can lead to economic consequences that remain long after re-establishment in the labour market. However, few empirical studies have been able to apply a life course perspective asking whether there are also long-term health consequences of unemployment, and, when and in which context unemployment may affect the individual health status across the life course. The aim of this thesis was to analyse the relationship between unemployment and illness across the life course, and how it relates to individual and structural factors in the geographical setting of northern Sweden. In particular, three main areas have been explored: youth unemployment and illness in adulthood (Paper I and Paper II), contextual unemployment of national unemployment rate and neighbourhood unemployment (Paper II and Paper III) and lastly, social determinants of health inequality between employment statuses (Paper IV). Methods. This thesis is positioned in Sweden between the early 1980s and the mid-2010s, following two comparable cohorts sampled from northern Sweden (26 and 19 years follow-up time respectively from youth to midlife) and a cross-sectional sample from 2014 of the four northernmost counties in Sweden. The two longitudinal cohorts comprised the Northern Swedish Cohort and the Younger Northern Swedish Cohort, consisting of all pupils in the 9th grade of compulsory school in Luleå municipality in 1981 and 1989. The participants responded to an extensive questionnaire on socioeconomic factors, work and health, in 5 and 2 waves respectively of data collections. Neighbourhood register data from Statistics Sweden was also collected for all participants in the Northern Sweden Cohort. At the latest data collection, 94.3% (n=1010) participated in the Northern Sweden Cohort and 85.6% (n=686) in the Younger Northern Sweden Cohort. The cross-sectional study Health on Equal Terms is a national study, administered by the Public Health Agency together with Statistics Sweden and county councils with the aim of mapping public health and living conditions in the country over time. In this thesis, material from 2014 has been used for northern Sweden with a response rate of around 50% (effective sample n=12769). The statistical analyses used were linear regression, multilevel analysis and difference-in-difference analysis to estimate the concurrent and long-term health consequences of unemployment, and a decomposition analysis to disentangle the inequality in health between different labour market positions. The health outcomes in focus were functional somatic symptoms (the occurrence of relatively common physical illnesses such as head, muscle and stomach ache, insomnia and palpitation) and psychological distress. Results. Among men only, as little as one month of youth unemployment was related to increased levels of functional somatic symptoms in midlife, regardless of previous ill health or unemployment later in life, although only during relatively low national unemployment (pre-recession) when comparing with youth unemployment during high national unemployment (recession). This was explained by the health promoting effect of more time spent in higher education during the recession period. Furthermore, the health impact of neighbourhood unemployment highlights the importance of the contextual setting for individuals’ health both across the life course and at specific periods of life. Lastly, employment-related mental health inequalities exist for both men and women in all life phases (youth, adulthood and midlife). Economic and social deprivation related to unemployment and illness varied across different phases in life and across genders. Conclusion. The key findings of this thesis paint a rather pessimistic vision of the future: one’s own and others’ unemployment may cause not only ill health today but also ill health later in life. Importantly, the responsibility of unemployment and the associated ill health should not be placed on the already marginalised individuals and communities. Instead, the responsibility should be directed towards the structural aspects of society and the political choices that shape these. In other words, health inequality manifested by the position in the labour market is socially produced, unfair and changeable through political decisions. The results of this study therefore cannot contribute to any simple or concrete solutions to the concurrent or long-term health consequences of individual or contextual unemployment, as the solution is beyond the areas of responsibility and abilities of research. However, if there are long-term health consequences of one’s own and other people’s unemployment, labour market and public health policies should be initiated from a young age and continue throughout the life course to reduce individual suffering and future costs of social insurance, sick-leave and unemployment benefits.