There’s a very thought-provoking article by James Surowiecki in The New Yorker online.
The article states a fact that’s often noted these days: 40 percent of the currently unemployed are “long-term unemployed” – people who have been jobless for six months or more.
What got me thinking, though, was the article’s analysis of what happens, both to the affected individuals and to society, when millions and millions of people are chronically unemployed.
For example, it was a little alarming for me to read that my life may be shortened. The article cites a study by von Wachter and Sullivan that found “mortality rates among laid-off workers were much higher than average even twenty years afterward.”
Of course we know what long-term unemployment can do to your self-esteem and the article talks about that. It also notes what those of us in this boat often suspect: the longer we’re unemployed, the likelier it is that a potential employer may think that there’s something wrong with us. (After all, if we were any good, someone would have hired us by now.)
I’m sure this is true in some cases, but I don’t believe it’s accurate about most of us, especially if we’re over 50 and especially now, when the universe of jobs available today is now the same as it was 30 years ago. (Has our population stayed the same in 30 years?)
There are more personal consequences, but in addition, there are broader effects on our society as a whole. There’s the danger that our current rate of unemployment will become “structural” – that is, “…unemployment…won’t go away once the good times return.” A group of us may become unemployed “permanently.” Since we’re not contributing our productivity, the economy grows more slowly. Since we don’t pay income taxes, fewer people are forced to pay for government benefits and “entitlements.”
Not only that, but there’s an insidious psychological toll. As chronic unemployment continues, society eventually gets “used to it.” It’s not a crisis anymore; it’s the "new normal.” It becomes, as I titled this post, just “the way things are.”
Speaking only for myself, I can definitely say that I’m not getting “used to it,” this unending state of joblessness. That suggests acceptance, even complacency, and that doesn’t describe my attitude toward unemployment for a minute.
For our country’s sake, I just hope that the rest of us, including those fortunate enough to have jobs, don’t get used to it either.