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Being unemployed as a young adult, even on a short-term basis, can significantly hinder the likelihood of such individuals being able to achieve a leadership position later in their careers, according to new research from Durham University Business School.

The study, conducted by management expert Professor Olga Epitropaki, alongside Panagiotis Avramidis of Alba Graduate Business School, found that experiencing unemployment for even a week at a time can reduce the probability of securing a leadership role in the future by 2%.

Data and methodology

Using data from two cohorts of the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (one that had experienced the 2008 global financial crisis in early adulthood and one that did not), totalling nearly 10,000 individuals, and drawing information from life course theory, the researchers examined the impact of employment gaps experienced in emerging adulthood on the likelihood of occupying a leadership role in middle adulthood.

The critical period of emerging adulthood

The researchers focused on emerging adulthood, a developmental period between 18 and 29 years of age, as experiencing unemployment during these years can diminish young adults’ opportunities to build their leadership potential and impact their confidence to lead in the future.

“These years are theorised to have a profound impact on an individual’s life and career choices, and identity formation. It is a period of exploration and experimentation in roles, responsibilities, and commitments,” says Professor Epitropaki.

“It’s a key life stage for building leadership-related skills via stretching assignments, on-the-job experiences, mentoring, and role-modelling. Experiencing any gaps here can negatively impact individuals’ future leadership development”.

Understanding early-career unemployment scarring

The study revealed a strong negative relation between early unemployment and individuals’ future chances to occupy leadership positions in work settings. An increase of one week in annual employment gap results in a reduction of 2% in the probability of leadership role occupancy later in a career. The researchers refer to this as “early-career unemployment scarring”. Prolonged employment gaps were found to cause the most severe scarring to future leadership prospects.

Socio-economic and gender factors

The researchers also examined the role of early life disadvantage, such as low family socio-economic status, and found that individuals who experienced this felt a stronger negative effect on their likelihood of leader role occupancy, with one week unemployment in early adulthood decreasing their probability to occupy leadership positions in middle adulthood by 4%.

Examinations into the role of gender also revealed women to experience more adverse effects of early career unemployment on their future emergence in leadership positions and social mobility.

A call to ensure equal leadership opportunities

The researchers believe the findings offer invaluable insights for organisations and for governments alike in levelling the playing field and ensuring access to career progression for all.

To alleviate the scarring effect of early-career unemployment, investing in initiatives to address youth unemployment such as internships, subsidised employment programmes and placements, vocational training, and leadership training programmes can all help young adults build leadership-related skills, they advise.

“Ensuring that all individuals have an equal opportunity to attain leadership positions and rise above limitations imposed by the environment they grew up in or their gender is a worthy goal for individuals, organisations, and societies,” Professor Epitropaki concludes.

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