Americans Blame Themselves for Unemployment, Israelis Blame the System

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One might think it’s because of America’s individualistic, make-it-your-own-way values. But the difference may actually stem from the way our institutions are set up.

For this study, MIT’s Ofer Sharone interviewed white-collar workers from the tech-heavy hubs of San Francisco and Tel Aviv. He saw that they tended to blame very different things for being unable to find a job.

According to the study, Israeli job seekers said they felt “invisible,” and “at a loss” because of a blind and arbitrary system, while Americans focused more blame on the inside.

“For Americans, there is a fear that it’s ‘something about me,’” Sharone said. “A fear that intensifies with time, [exacts] an emotional toll and makes it really hard to continue searching for jobs.”

One participant, Chris, said: “The hardest thing is esteem, confidence. It’s killed. I have turned into an introvert.

“I feel like I’ve gotten older.”

Maybe it has to do with America’s cultural individualism?

Maybe not, Sharone says.

Because a whole array of employment attitudes could be consistent with individualism, he offers a different explanation besides that of culture alone: The institutions of hiring and job seeking themselves shape attitudes.

In the United States, job seeking means networking and interviewing face to face with potential bosses. In Israel, staffing agencies and testing centers play a much larger role. They’re involved in almost all hiring for medium and large companies there.

In the U.S., interviews are like a blind date. American bosses put a lot of focus on chemistry and whether that person is the right “fit” as a human being. Israeli institutions bring a checklist approach, look for specific prior experiences and test individuals’ math and language skills, all before they even get to an interview.

“Oftentimes these Israeli screeners aren’t specialists in any one area because they do staffing for a lot of different kinds of companies,” Sharone said. “They’re not in a position to know what intangibles a person might bring, or some useful skill they might have that’s not on the list.”

American job seekers, on the other hand, aren’t just putting their skills on the line to be judged, but their very personalities.

As a result, unemployed Israelis see themselves frustrated by a rigid, unresponsive system. Unemployed Americans make themselves vulnerable on a personal level and so the pain of rejection cuts deep. One American participant even told of a suicide attempt because of their unemployment experiences.

The different “games” that Americans and Israelis play in these different contexts – the “chemistry” game in the U.S., a “specs” game in Israel – show that we need to take a wider view of people’s experiences.

“There are really two common, but a bit mistaken, ways to think about unemployment experiences,” he said. “One is that it’s a universal experience – that we all tend to experience it in the same way. The other view is that it’s all about the individual – that if you’re somebody who’s resilient or an optimist then you’ll experience it one way.”

But because of these variations at the national level, we now know that institutional characteristics can make a big difference, he said.

The study, “Why Do Unemployed Americans Blame Themselves While Israelis Blame the System?” was published in the journal Social Forces.

Ofer Sharone delves deeper in his new book, “Flawed System/Flawed Self: Job Searching and Unemployment Experiences,” by the University of Chicago Press.

Featured Image: A beach-side view of Tel Aviv, Israel. Credit: Amos Meron.