Long-Term Unemployment: A Matter of Bad Timing?

Tomorrow will mark eight months since I was laid off.  This means that I have been among the ranks of the “long-term unemployed” for two months now.

I suppose that a recent pair of articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times should make me feel better about my unsuccessful job hunt.  Paul Krugman and Matt O’Brien assure me that it’s not my fault.  As it turns out, I’m just unlucky.

O’Brien ran a regression analysis that shows that becoming long-term employed is largely a product of being laid off at the wrong time.  Apparently, if you lose your job when the economy is bad, you may be out of work for a very long time.  If you lose your job when the economy is good, another company is likely to pick you up in short order.

This seems like common sense to me.  When the economy is bad, your employer is suffering and you’re more likely to lose your job.  But all the other employers are suffering too, so you’re not likely to find another one.  Lose your job when the economy is good and, big deal, the company next door and the one down the street are both hiring.

Despite the appeal of this logic, this theory hasn’t panned out for me personally.  O’Brien states that you were really out of luck if you lost your job in 2009, when unemployment peaked at 10% nationally.  If you were laid off in that year, he says, you had a 30% chance of becoming long-term unemployed.

Well, it just happens that I lost my job in 2009.  It took me eight months to find another, so technically I had slipped into the ranks of the long-term unemployed, proving out O’Brien’s theory.  What did I do to find that job?  For one thing, I filed 133 job applications in a total of 26 states.

After working at that job for three years and three months, I was laid off in the fall of 2013.  While the economy was not what one would consider wonderful at that time, it was a lot better than it was in 2009.  As I have been making just as concerted an effort to find another job as I did last time around, under O’Brien’s theory I would have expected to find work by now.  But it hasn’t turned out that way for me, or apparently, for anyone else.

“There’s never been this much long-term unemployment before, at least not since they started keeping records in 1948,” states O’Brien.  “Right now, 35 percent of all unemployed people have been out of work for at least six months.”  This figure reflects the fact that many who lost their jobs in 2009 are still unemployed in 2014.  By comparison, I was lucky.

So what of all my fellow “2009ers” whose job search efforts have been in vain and who have remained out of work until this day?  They have now been unemployed for five years, which is forever in the job market.  Their skills are no longer current, and their prospects of securing employment have dwindled right along with their self-esteem.  Not to mention the fact that prospective employers discriminate against them for that incriminating gap in their résumés.  Because they drew the short straw by becoming unemployed at the wrong time, they are likely to remain unemployed forever.  These people are forced into retirement, making a national economic recovery more difficult with the permanent loss of their skills.

“It’s the economy, stupid!” writes Krugman in his Times opinion piece.  Running the numbers gives the lie to “the alternate story, which is that the long-term unemployed are workers with a problem.”  This, of course, is code for lazy, stupid, can’t follow basic rules, don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, aren’t trying hard enough, would rather live off a government check, etc.  These are the kinds of qualities that conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives attribute to the long-term unemployed and use an excuse for denying unemployment benefit extensions.  The fact that none of this is true doesn’t seem to matter.  It is a little too convenient for them to ignore the fact that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around and that, ultimately, the economy is the cause of so much long-term unemployment.

But Congress would prefer that we stop confusing them with the facts.

10 thoughts on “Long-Term Unemployment: A Matter of Bad Timing?

  1. This is a very good article and really demonstrates how far removed congress is from the reality of the economy as experienced by millions of people. Their policies have focused on profits over people facilitated by politics over people. Come election time, THEY WILL ALL PROMISE MORE JOBS while having no actual and true plan to accomplish it. They will offer up anti-economic development legislation which in reality are designed to achieve more profit for a limited few. BEWARE.

    • I suppose that our senators and representatives reap the benefit of our collectively short memory. Before voting for Congress, I suggest that everyone check online as to how the candidates voted on the unemployment extension. I see no reason to support those who refuse to support Americans in their time of need. Thanks so much for your comment.

  2. I’m not trying to be offensive, and I know this is a sensitive topic, so excuse me if I offend. I’m curious.

    My husband went through about six months of unemployment. During this time, he only applied at jobs that either:
    a.) Interested him
    b.) He had previous experience in
    c.) Met his criteria for a career (full-time, interesting, room for growth, etc.)

    Meanwhile, I have worked as a maid, a gas station clerk, and a food worker when my chosen profession was out of reach. He didn’t apply for the fast food job, or the gas station job, even as a temporary measure. He wasn’t interested. He also had that financial luxury to be choosy.

    So, do you think overall the long-term unemployed isn’t applying for the entry-level, part-time, crappy jobs, or are they overqualified to the point that no one will hire them for these jobs?

    • Mindy, thanks so much for your valuable comment. You make some important points and I think it’s safe to say that you have not offended anyone! Please see my latest post (“If at first you don’t succeed, apply, apply again”), which was partially inspired by your comment, for some insight into how I have personally been dealing with the entry-level job conundrum.

      For those of us who have spent years working in the managerial/professional sector of the economy, there are at least two hurdles to jump over on the way to that “entry-level, part-time, crappy job.” The first is the employee’s; the second is the employer’s.

      The unemployed often feel that certain jobs are “beneath” them. This mindset is, unfortunately, supported by our current system of unemployment compensation. Having worked in management for years, I am entitled to the state maximum unemployment check for six months. In other words, every two weeks I get (past tense now) a check FOR DOING NOTHING that is more than what I would earn working part-time at 7-11 on the graveyard shift. Thus, there is no incentive to take that type of job until the unemployment checks have run out. Furthermore, there is an economic incentive to avoid that type of work even after the checks have stopped coming. Let’s say I’m out of unemployment and take some crappy, PT job. As one must earn a certain amount of income before being eligible to open a new unemployment benefit claim, I would have to work that job (without being laid off or having my hours cut back) for many months before I would be eligible for unemployment again. If I take a managerial job, I will likely earn enough to re-qualify for unemployment in a matter of weeks. Even if I DO work long enough at the crappy PT job to qualify for unemployment again, the amount of my check will be tiny compared to what I would receive had I worked as a manager. In this economy, you have to plan ahead for your next spate of unemployment.

      It has been statistically proven that employers discriminate against the unemployed. This is a vicious cycle because the longer you have been out of work, the less likely you are to be hired. This combines with the problem of “overqualification” to which you alluded. Years ago, I interviewed for a crew position at McDonald’s. As I was honest about my education (and everything else) on my application, I could tell that the manager thought she was wasting her time. If a prospective employer knows that you have two degrees, it is virtually certain that you will be disqualified out of hand for any minimum or subminimum wage job. The way around this, of course, is to lie. Conveniently leave out your college and grad school. Claim to be just a high school graduate. Of course, lying on your application is itself grounds for termination. You have to hope that the employer doesn’t find out for a while so that you can put food in your stomach and gas in your car for a few more months.

      • I read your new post, and it definitely gave me a new perspective. I barely survived on those crappy jobs, and I can’t imagine having to move for one of them. I couldn’t have moved for one of them, financially speaking. Thanks for the reply. Still wishing you the best of luck in your search.

  3. To answer your question, yes and no. I have personally heard the excuse that I am too qualified for certain positions. At the same time, your husband was fortunate enough to have you as income so he had the luxury of being more selective. Many, many, many people do not have that fortune and I suspect that most have applied for many types of jobs. The bottom line is will they hire you and for the vast majority, the answer has been no.

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