Author: Alex Mangun
Today, one’s work and social life are intimately intertwined. How many friends or acquaintances have you met at your place of work? How often have you used your profession as a conversation starter? How many friends would you have found if you had never held a job or attended school?
Societal Structures and Structural Marginalization
These questions may seem trivial at first, but in actuality they shed an important light on the societal structures you partake in and the networks these structures have created for you. Two important and prominent examples of societal structures are work and school. By driving you into a close space with others, they are invaluable for developing social ties, creating contact with people in an organized and structured way that makes it easier for social connection to form (Välimäki and Aaltonen 2020). Because of their importance, exclusion from such structures can have extremely bad consequences for one’s social wellbeing.
The exclusion from today’s basic societal structures is called “structural marginalization” (Välimäki and Aaltonen 2020). Studies have demonstrated that this phenomenon leads to an increased experience of loneliness among those excluded (Välimäki and Aaltonen 2020). One of the best examples of this structural marginalization is unemployment: An individual without a job loses access to colleagues and thus to social connection (Välimäki and Aaltonen 2020).
Entering a Downward Spiral
Unfortunately, the story does not end with becoming lonely. Instead, the individual is thrust into an endless loop where the simple feeling of loneliness in fact prevents them from overcoming the structural marginalization they face (Gallie et. al. 2003).
For example, as people are excluded from close social circles, they may begin to experience some of its negative side effects. The stigma attached to unemployment negatively influences one’s personal identity and ability to relate to others (Gallie et. al. 2003). Furthermore, several studies have shown that the concentration of poverty and unemployment in specific urban zones is associated with a process of spatial segregation, further trapping the individual in their isolation (Oberti 1996). Thus, a vicious cycle forms that keeps people both unemployed and lonely, unable to escape either state on their own.
A Brief Story
Say we have an individual, Sam, who loses their job due to an economic downturn. Sam lives and works a long way away from family and old friends, and does not have the option to move back. Without being able to talk to them every day, Sam feels the relationships they had developed with their coworkers disintegrate, and, alone in a city far away from everyone they knew, Sam begins to feel exceedingly lonely.
Because Sam does not talk to people as often, Sam loses confidence in their ability to communicate and form connections, and thus withdraws even further from the social circles they used to be a part of. Soon enough, Sam gets nervous at the thought of an extended one-on-one discussion with someone, like a job interview, and with each botched interview, Sam’s confidence in their own social ability drops even further, and their unemployment becomes more and more dire.
Sam has been caught in a horrific downward spiral, and it is clear in this story how Sam becomes increasingly unable to fix their situation. This is not because Sam does not try, but because Sam is negatively affected by feelings of loneliness that are not their fault.
Though Sam’s case is unfortunate, it does provide insight into a very important realization: If someone is lonely or isolated, it is possible that there is very little they can do on their own to improve their situation. This is why it is so important that we better understand the effects of loneliness. In order to create an environment that supports us all, we must first understand the struggles it fosters.
Gallie, D., S. Paugam and S. Jacobs (2003). “Unemployment, Poverty, and Social Isolation: Is there a vicious circle of social exclusion?” European Societies 5(1): 1-32.
Oberti, M. (1996). “La relégation urbaine, regards européens,” in S. Paugam (ed.) L’Exclusion, l’état des savoirs, Paris: La Découverte, pp. 237–47.
Välimäki, V., A. Kivijärvi and S. Aaltonen (2020). “The links between structural and social marginalisation–social relations of young Finnish adults not in employment or education.” Journal of Youth Studies 23(10): 1347-1365.