As described in the paper, titled “Tracking Employment Shocks Using Mobile Phone Data,” a team of economists from MIT, Harvard, Northeastern, the University of Pittsburgh, and UC Davis analyzed mobile data from a small European town that was home to a large car parts factory in Europe until it closed in December 2006. The closure resulted in the layoffs of over a thousand workers in a town with a total population of just 15,000, delivering a body blow to the local economy.
By analyzing anonymized data on mobile phone activity for around 2,000 people from a 15-month period before and after the plant closed, including the time and location where calls were made, the researchers were able to demonstrate that the number of calls made fell off sharply after the layoffs, suggesting a correlated decline in social activity. The decline extended to actual physical mobility, as laid-off employees moved around less, leading to a broader decline in social networks. Although the study didn’t specify where the laid-off people spent most of their time, I’m going to go ahead and guess it was the couch at home, because that’s where the beer and potato chips are.
Of course depression and malaise aren’t the only possible culprits: I’m guessing laid-off employees may also have moderated their mobile usage, or given up their mobile devices altogether, in order to save money. However the ultimate impact on their lives could well be the same, with decreased mobile device activity associated with a falloff in social activity.
Although the authors didn’t delve into this in the paper, the study would seem to have implications for policymakers and civic institutions trying to combat unemployment. Other studies have shown that personal social networks are one of the most important ways people can hear about new job opportunities. If a laid-off person allows his social contacts to lapse, his chances of finding new employment will also start to dwindle. The research suggests that efforts to engage laid-off workers via mobile (and face-to-face interaction) could help them stay in the job market, as well as bolstering their emotional well-being.