Consumption Responses to Involuntary Job Loss

Scott D. Roberts, Old Dominion University
ABSTRACT - This is a case-style report of the consumption adjustments by two men as a result of the loss of their jobs and income. Emphasis is given to personal and social areas of consumption. The consumer behavior exhibited by the informants reflects both a reaction to the current context of job loss and consideration of personal, historical backgrounds.
[ to cite ]:
Scott D. Roberts (1991) ,"Consumption Responses to Involuntary Job Loss", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 40-42.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 40-42


Scott D. Roberts, Old Dominion University


This is a case-style report of the consumption adjustments by two men as a result of the loss of their jobs and income. Emphasis is given to personal and social areas of consumption. The consumer behavior exhibited by the informants reflects both a reaction to the current context of job loss and consideration of personal, historical backgrounds.


Sudden income loss is a phenomenon from which few are completely immune. It has been estimated that during the 1970s and 1980s nearly one-third of the population suffered a major drop (half or more) in their family income (Duncan, et al. 1986). The U.S. economy has long been shifting to a services-dominated work force, leaving in its wake large numbers of structurally unemployed workers (U.S. Congress 1986). Surprisingly little research has been done to investigate the micro consumption "fallout" of such income loss.

This paper reports on a case study of the lives of two men who were laid off for over two years from their jobs as steel workers. Data were gathered in a variety of ways, including several lengthy depth interviews with each informant and participant observation at their monthly union meetings. Additionally, naturalistic observation of the informants in their homes, including the use of photography were employed to give a more complete context to the report. These sources of evidences are recommended for conducting case studies by Yin (1984). This report is part of a larger study involving over twenty informants (Roberts 1988), which provides some backdrop for the experiences of these men. As is the standard, informant names and other identifying characteristics have been disguised for the sake of anonymity (BeLk, et al. 1988).

Although it is generally accepted that the use of very small samples limits the generalizability of a study to other groups or settings, reports of small sample qualitative research projects continue to be valuable in providing insight to consumer researchers unavailable through other methodologies. For example, Pollay (1987) reported the excessive Christmas decoration activities of a single informant and Holbrook (1988) used introspective psychoanalytic techniques to explain his own consumption behavior. Each of these studies adds, in its own way, to the body of knowledge about consumer behavior.


Paul Worth (Single White Male - 34) and Mark Laydon (SWM41) were laid off by Perry Iron Corporation after 10 and 21 years of service, respectively. Perry had been hit hard by two recessions in the early 198Os and also by low world prices for their output. They closed the doors "indefinitely" and laid off more than 8,000 workers. The economy local to Perry has a fairly low level of industrial activity, and relies instead on retailing, state government, higher education, and financial services for the bulk of it employment. This forced most laid off workers into a union-hostile and generally low-paying labor market -- usually with poor outcomes. The informants in this case were both high school dropouts, even further limiting their options.

The consumption and other responses of Paul and Mark to income and job loss were varied. The loss of jobs which paid close to $20 per hour in wages and benefits obviously necessitated some immediate adjustments. For instance, less maintenance was done on Mark's lawn, house, and automobiles and his family spent much less on clothing during the two years he was not employed by Perry. These types of adjustments are clearly functional in nature. Perhaps more interesting are the personal and social-oriented consumption reactions. The focus here is on these two major areas. The personal and social arenas are highly intertwined and overlapping where consumption is concerned. Some consumption activities fall more clearly into one or the other, whereas other consumption can be interpreted as related to both the personal and the social area.

Before going into specifics, however, it is important to note that both of these men brought to the situation a certain amount of "baggage" which is difficult to tease out of the analysis and which therefore must be provided to the reader of this type of work. Paul had been divorced a few years earlier and, the stress of this event, coupled with shift work led him to attempt suicide. He had successfully received therapy including biofeedback training before the lay off occurred. Nevertheless, the state of his mental health going into the loss of job and income certainly affected his approach to the situation. Mark reported that his entire life had been a struggle. He contracted polio as a child, which left him with one leg shorter than the other. He was put on drugs as a child to curb obesity. He learned at 38 years of age that his lifetime frustration with school and reading could be traced to dyslexia. Mark brought to the lay off a bitter perspective on life and low self esteem.


In some ways, the loss of job is a direct threat to who a person is (unemployed refers to what you are not). This gap in the consumer's self identity (Belk 1988) may prompt the person to try to "complete" him or her self symbolically through consumption behavior (Wicklund and Gollwitzer 1982). Another important function of consumption is as a signal to others about who the person is and how that person is "doing" (Veblen 1899). The inability of the individual or family to maintain such appearances is then a further problem which may be brought on by income loss (Newman 1988).


One of the most devastating losses which came as a result of the loss of income was Paul's power car, a new red Camaro with all the options. He brought it up three times in the first interview. When asked why this had been such a difficult loss, Paul stated some practical reasons for why he needed the car. Further probing yielded more interesting insights, however, as the following quote reveals: "Well, it said somethin', Perry worker, lost m'car... not because of the lay off but I lost my house and m'family, but then on top o' that, here I lose m'car, you know. Lost m'job... what next?" During the lay off, he said he felt like he wasn't the same old fun person he used to be. "I got depressed. It's really been hard, I haven't been happy. It's like I can't be happy. Can't find that old happy feeling."

Paul's deteriorating financial situation exacerbated his problems with women. He found that women were "less loyal" to him in the dating situation. He had had several female roommates who had helped him financially (three in the last three years, plus his mother). Ironically, at the same time he was relying on women for support, his perceptions of women became more distorted and grotesque. He became a collector of hard-core pornography magazines like Asian Anal Girls and Swedish Erotica and couched much of his conversation in terms of sexual needs. "I've pretty much given up women for my porn... You know, socializing's different, [pause] friends don't fill needs, [pause) it's lonely out there." Kohut (1977, p. 161) states that pornography may be used in an attempt to "stimulate [the] self erotically in order to regain the sense of aliveness and reality of [the] body-self." The consumption of pornography by Paul seems to fit Kohut's interpretation. His inability to find satisfying and appropriate social relationships was clearly related to the loss of income and status as a steel worker.

Paul had also become much more distant with his family, not seeing them much over the time of the lay off even though they live locally. Some high school buddies of his had become sufficiently concerned about him to invite him to play in their band just so he would get out more. When asked if he tried to do more social things, he replied, "for the last year I've been in my own cave, right here." While he did get out to work his interim jobs over the period of the lay off, his use of the word "cave" to describe his dwelling is apt. He lived in the basement half of a two bedroom apartment and was extremely reclusive, even hermit-like. Again, the inward turn by Paul in terms of his social network and consumption was related in great degree to his loss of status and income.


The lay off for Mark was marked in many ways by an increase in acquisition behavior. On the eve of the imminent lay off, he decided that he needed a new truck in order to be able to have reliable transportation so he could "follow construction." His payments throughout the lay off period were $460 per month. This purchase sets the stage for explaining Mark's approach to life. He seems to equate spending with living. At one point, he discussed the possibility of a hunting trip with his wife. She objected that this was "reckless" in light of the current financial burdens. He replied, venting anger not at her, but at the company, "Bullshit! They're not gonna break me, they're not gonna stop me from living!"

In addition to the truck, Mark bought a used Mercedes during the lay off. Again, he cited practical reasoning, that his wife needed something reliable for her commute to work. The car clearly had social benefits, as well, however. Mark reports, 'We had a lot of people say 'Oh my God, you bought a Mercedes and you're laid off, you're not hurting."' This purchase was visible enough that it sent a message-to outsiders -- "The Laydons are doing just fine, thank you." Maintaining visible consumption while cutting back elsewhere to maintain "face" is a strategy reported by Newman in her study of unemployment and underemployment among the middle class in the U.S. (Newman 1988).

The Laydons did cut back in some areas. Of particular note was their almost complete cessation of outdoor family recreation. They owned a camper and a boat, both of which had received heavy use prior to the lay off. Mark and his wife also stopped their annual snow skiing trips and frequent eating out. They went from frequent golfing to almost none.

At the same time these cuts were going on, Mark reported that he smoked more marijuana, even giving vague references to small-time dealing to help supplement his income. Another consumption activity of interest was Mark's purchase of two horses while laid off. Though the price of the horses was not great, the commitment in terms of long term care was significant. He reported that feed alone amounted to several hundred dollars in the last six months. Additionally, he bought the basics of tack in order to be able to use the horses. He was looking for somewhere to store them because the owner of the land where the animals were staying for free was going to sell. This substantial allocation of resources to horses reflected his desire to return to his rural roots, he said. His family did not participate in the horse care or use at all.


The types of consumer behavior exhibited by the two informants in this case could clearly be interpreted using many theoretical angles. Mark's insistence on spending money for the truck, for example, looks a lot like denial in the Freudian sense. The angle used here is the notion of the extended self as reflected by consumption decisions.

This report has focused on some extreme reactions to income loss. But are they really so extreme? The loss of job can have devastating consequences when one's identity is diminished as a result. One's identity is important both to the self and to significant others. The consumption decisions of these men, when framed in self-protective theories such as Wicklund and Gollwitzer's "symbolic self-completion" (1982) are not so illogical as outsiders might imagine. These men took rational, thoughtful steps (admittedly forced by a difficult situation) to protect and perhaps re-define who they are and who they want to be. Were the adjustments by these men "good" or even healthy? That issue is best left to those who assist the unemployed most directly.


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