Aliya Rao: Studying Unemployment in an Age of Insecurity

Sociology Ph.D Student Aliya Rao talks about her research on the modern-day meaning of unemployment

When I read Katherine Newman’s Falling from Grace in my first year at Penn, I was struck by her heart-wrenching findings, and how she sympathetically detailed the painful experiences of  unemployed executives in New York City. Newman chronicled the shame and stigma experienced by unemployed executives. She wrote about how downward mobility, resulting from unemployment, tore marriages and families apart. Taken as I was by Newman’s work, I couldn’t help but notice that she had only talked to male executives who had lost their jobs - not to women. While this was fine for the 1980's (when Newman conducted her research and wrote her book), it made less sense now in our world of Leaning In. The employment landscape has also become more insecure since the 1980's, with words such as "downsizing" and "rightsizing" on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

Newman’s book remained etched in my mind. In my second year, I was working on my Master’s paper, analyzing employment insecurity amongst one segment of workers - young and skilled professionals employed in contingent work. Doing a dissertation on unemployment (an extreme form of employment insecurity, if you will) amongst professionals was a natural step forward from both my Master’s research and the imprint left on me by Falling from Grace.

My dissertation analyzes the meanings attributed to unemployment. In an era of insecure employment, unemployment likely takes on a less stigmatized place than in previous decades. I am attentive to how experiences and understandings of unemployment are gender-differentiated. Research suggests that men typically tend to see their identities as fathers and husbands as more closely linked to their employment status and ability to provide than women do with their identities as wives and mothers. Considering this, unemployment probably has different meanings for men and women, especially in their identities as fathers and husbands or wives and mothers.  I broadly ask: what is the meaning of unemployment for professionals, and how is the experience of unemployment amongst married, dual-earner, college-educated professionals who have children, gendered?

My research uses in-depth interviews and family observations with unemployed professionals and their spouses to grapple with the above question. My sample will be evenly split between men and women who have lost jobs. Like Newman, I focus on the impact on the family – such as marriages and parent-child relationships. I talk to both the unemployed individual and his or her partner (in separate interviews). When the couple permits, I talk to one of their children who is over the age of 15. This gives me insights into multiple perspectives. An integral part of my research involves family observations to get a fuller understanding of unemployment. I am currently in the middle of observing one family and I will observe another family this Spring.

I hope that my dissertation will shed light on the experiences and strategies of dealing with unemployment for families, and what unemployment means now in an evolving employment landscape where employment trajectories across skill levels and industries are riddled with insecurity.


Newman, Katherine. 1988 [1999]. Falling from grace: downward mobility in the age of affluence. Berkeley: University of California Press.