In 1985, when Harvey Krahn was a young sociologist at the U of A, he set out to discover whether youth unemployment affected mental health. Two years later, almost all of the cohort of 1,000 grade 12 students he had interviewed were still in school. So he decided to check in with them again, and then several more times over the years.
After 25 years, in 2010, he and his research partner, psychologist Nancy Galambos, once again surveyed those same students, now 43 years old. It’s possibly the longest-running longitudinal study in Canada. And it’s produced a plethora of data, which has fueled public policy decisions, numerous other academic studies and further research questions. The study has been cited hundreds of times by other researchers.
Over the decades, the focus of the survey shifted from a school-work transition study to a youth-adult transition study. Galambos initially became involved because she was curious how mental health changes for people over time, and how it might correlate with their life circumstances.
“Different questions [than what had originally been imagined] could be asked of this data set, because it’s so large and it’s so longitudinal,” she said.
“By the time the study participants got to age 32, we were interested not just in their school and their work and unemployment, but we were interested in: are they having children, are they living at home, what are their attitudes about a whole variety of things,” Krahn added.
The study is also remarkable because of its interdisciplinary nature. Galambos and Krahn recently worked with assistant professor Matt Johnson in Human Ecology, who studies the marriage and family realm of psychology.
The paper that Johnson, Galambos and Krahn just submitted together shows that the state of someone’s mental health at age 18 is a predictor of marital relationship health at age 43.
“It’s a study that has really evolved, and no one really anticipated that we’d be doing some of the projects we’re doing today with it,” Krahn said.
“The desire by governments to fund research that’s very practical… well the irony, of course, is that you really can’t predict 20 years later what the questions are going to be,” he said. And thanks to government funding, “we can answer questions now we never dreamt of answering before.”
This research has helped educators and policy makers understand how the youth to adult transition isn’t as linear today as it was 25 years ago, with many people going through periods of part-time or temporary work, as well as returning to school periodically.
“These irregular transitions are not a function of a generation that’s not trying as hard or doesn’t have the motivation. It’s really a very changed labour market out there. We need to take that into account when we figure out what kind of labour market policies we should have.”
After all this, Krahn did discover the answer to his original question: early unemployment didn’t necessarily have the negative mental health effects that he predicted.
But what surprised Krahn and Galambos most, looking at the data, is that people are really quite resilient — people can overcome difficult life circumstances, such as unemployment, and be successful later in life.