Archive for November 22nd, 2012


The origin of this blog post was from a question I posted several years ago on two different Internet forums. One forum belonged to a national British newspaper, the other was My Gifted Life, a forum for discussing the social, emotional and daily life issues of gifted adults. The question was: “Do you feel, or have you ever felt, that you are underemployed?”

Typical answers on the two forums could not have differed more widely. All the respondents on the newspaper’s forum answered that the didn’t feel that they had ever been underemployed, and there were the predictable snotty responses along the lines of how it’s down to the individual (although how a person can make an organization give them a job, I’m still chewing on). On the other hand, the respondents on My Gifted Life immediately grasped the concept, and numerous personal stories emerged. The whole “tone” of the discussion was also supportive rather than preachy.

Perhaps a large part of the problem was defining exactly what is meant by underemployment. Most of the Google searches I conducted seemed to define it in terms of employees working part-time when they wanted a full-time job. And of course we’ve all seen those “shock horror scandal” type stories that regularly surface, where some person with a degree can’t get a graduate-level job and is either unemployed or sweeping floors somewhere.

While searching for “psychological effects of underemployment”, I came across a paper by Daniel S. Friedland and Richard H. Price entitled “Underemployment: Consequences for the Health and Well-Being of Workers”. The authors identified four categories of underemployment: hours underemployment (involuntarily working less than full-time), income underemployment (where their job would not provide them with a livable wage even if they worked full time), skills underemployment (when their job does not afford them the opportunity to put their skills and training to use), and status unemployment (when their job provides less occupational status than expected on the basis of their background).

Whereas elements of the descriptions of skills underemployment and status underemployment touch upon what I was originally alluding to in my question above, no category identified by Friedland and Price really covered the concept 100%. Skills underemployment CAN be about formal qualifications and training, but most “gifties” I know are knowledge-hungry and may have a panoply of self-taught skills and knowledge. “Status underemployment” seems an unfortunate choice of nomenclature, especially as the authors include in that category familial background, which intentionally or unintentionally conveys the concept of a spoilt upper middle class brat who considers an entry-level position below him or her.

My informal online enquiries seemed to identify a category of “hidden” underemployed – inadequately employed people who, my preliminary enquiries show, are particularly prevalent among the ranks of the gifted. And if the discoveries of my learned friend Michael Ferguson are anything to go by, I would be willing to wager that the higher the level of giftedness, the higher the prevalence of underemployment, taking into account the person’s level of capacity vis-a-vis how their capacity is being utilized. There’s a sociological study waiting to be done right there, if anyone can ever be bothered to fund it.

I have therefore refined the definition to define as “underemployed” the following:

Those members of the workforce whose regular employment doesn’t make full use of their knowledge and skills (no matter how acquired), their talents, aptitudes, and overall level of intelligence, and does little or nothing to further their personal potential.

There is an attitude among recruiters, the popular media and the public that the underemployed are the architects of their own downfall. This stance needs to be challenged. In addition, the underemployed may not have only suddenly found themselves so, an example being the accountant who, having been made redundant, has to take a retail job to pay the bills. The underemployed person may have been working below capacity for the entirety of his/her working life, thus further reinforcing employers’ (and the public’s) perception that they are adequately employed.

Poverty, carer status (looking after dependants), state of health, lack of support during the compulsory school years leading to an unsatisfactory level of formal basic education – there are probably any number of situations that work against the individual’s chances of success, and which have NOTHING to do with the individual’s personal qualities (e.g. drive, commitment etc.).

When the most productive hours of a person’s week are committed to an underemployment situation, apart from any psychological and health effects this may have on the individual, there are numerous practical ways it also harms their prospects of obtaining something more suitable. For instance:

  • It uses up time that the person cannot then devote to obtaining the training and education usually required for a top-level career, to network and meet industry contacts.
  • It sends the wrong message, i.e. organizations tend to infer from the fact that the person is not currently working in the field that he/she is not as committed as people already working in that field.
  • Recruiters may complain that applicant lacks relevant experience, or that his/her experience is not recent.
  • It makes it difficult to keep one’s skills and knowledge in their desired field up-to-date when this is relegated to an “extravocational” activity.
  • It may pay significantly less, meaning less (or no) money for the individual to invest in professional development training in their chosen field, thus creating a financial dependency trap.
  • And so on.

At least the effects of underemployment (as opposed to merely unemployment) are starting to be studied, even if the exact definition has not yet been settled upon and no longitudinal studies have been carried out to date.

However, I predict nothing will be done to address the problem until the reverse side of the coin is fully studied, i.e. the cost to industry, rather than the effects on the individual.

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