Divorced and Unemployed: the Declining Association between Two Critical Lifecourse States in the UK, 1984-2017

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This paper aims to establish the prevalence of people in the UK who are either divorced or separated and also unemployed (DSU). It also investigates whether education level or gender influences the likelihood of an individual being part of this sub-group of the population.

Using data covering the period 1984-2017 from large-scale national surveys in the UK, the researchers find that the proportion of DSU individuals peaked at 1.2 percent among men in 1994 and at 1.6 percent among women in 1987. In 2017 it stood at less than half a percent for both men and women (a total of around 150,000 individuals).

Lower educated individuals were more likely to be DSU than their better educated counterparts. This was particularly the case during the 1980s, a period of high unemployment in the UK.

For most of the period, women were more likely to be DSU than men, irrespective of their education level, but across the time period this gap decreased and, by 2017, disappeared.

Although the researchers expected less educated divorced or separated individuals to be more likely to become unemployed and vice versa, this was not the case. For women, level of education made no difference, whilst for men, the association was strongest among the better educated.

The association between divorce/separation and unemployment became weaker over the time period with the most recent results showing no link between the two states. An explanation for this is that the divorced/separated have become more like the general population in terms of their unemployment risk, possibly due to greater acceptance of divorce in society or policy changes in the late 1990s that made it easier for separated women to find work.

The researchers conclude that, with the decline of marriage, it will be important going forward to look not just at married couples but also those who cohabit and then go on to separate. They also point out that with a substantial number of people remaining in the ‘wellbeing trap’ of DSU, future research should focus on exploring how they might escape.