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The unemployed and the unemployable

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Friday, Dec 3, 2010

Continuing the theme from yesterday’s post, the habitual, ideological association of employment with social and self-worth makes reports like the most recent from the BLS completely unacceptable. This NYT piece by Catherine Rampell details some of the reasons. European data has shown that “people who become disconnected from the work force have more trouble getting hired, probably because of some combination of stigma, discouragement and deterioration of their skills.” This leads to their complete segregation from the mainstream of life. Rampell’s piece ends on this cheerful note:


“After a while, a lot of European countries just got used to having 8 or 9 percent unemployment, where they just said, ‘Hey, that’s about good enough,’ ” said Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “If the unemployment rates here stay high but remain relatively stable, people may not worry so much that that’ll be their fate this month or next year. And all these unemployed people will fall from the front of their mind, and that’s it for them.”



That’s “it” for them? What does that even mean? They just become a permanent disenfranchised derelict class, ghosts among us reminding us of our doom if we fall afoul of the nation’s HR departments? (Because we certainly want the warm, compassionate people in “human resources” controlling our social destiny.) And who are these people? Via Twitter, Mike Konczal (@rortybomb) notes that in the latest report, unemployment for people with a bachelor’s degree jumped 0.4% over last month to 5.1%. Maybe these people will come to resemble the Japanese “herbivores” Rebecca Allen describes in this Semionaut post. The opposite of the self-reliant entrepreneurial ideal, these are passive Japanese men noted for their extreme narcissism, their fussy grooming habits, and their paralyzing risk aversion. Perhaps there will be hipster Hoovervilles in America once unemployability becomes an even more common outcome for those just graduating. Maybe this is already happening.


As Chris Dillow points out here, job insecurity is something of a constant, and recessions just amplify the volatility slightly. But this doesn’t mean we should accept the fact that “even in the best of times, many of those in work are living lives of fear and insecurity” as the natural order of things. Dillow argues that “macroeconomic policy alone is a weak tool for reducing the individual, idiosyncratic risks that workers face,” which means tinkering at the fiscal edges is an extremely roundabout way of trying to massage unemployment figures. Different kinds of action in a different realm of policy are perhaps required.


If the current level of unemployment in the U.S. is “structural” and is truly going to be persistent and cannot be ameliorated by state action, then other efforts must be made to shift ideological notions about the unemployed to ease the psychological damage—to shift to a post-work welfare state that is justified by technological improvements that have made more jobs superfluous. (This is not so far-fetched; Gluskin Sheff’s David Rosenberg points out that already “a record near 20% of personal income is now being derived from government transfer payments” in the U.S.) But it just doesn’t seem to be the case that there is an actual shortage of tasks that we would want done as a society; it seems more that the economy has fallen under the direction of those who see more profitability in maintaining a reserve army of the unemployed than in finding new goods and services to produce. And everybody ultimately suffers then as the country inevitably stagnates. Think I’ll take a cue from the herbavores and go pout in a mirror somewhere.

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