Provocative words: discouraged workers.
They could be those whose good work isn’t rewarded with raises and promotions, or isn’t even much noticed.
And they’re the lucky ones. They have jobs.
Those whom the government categorizes as “discouraged workers” do not.
They’re “marginally attached to the labor force” in official parlance — not employed, not even unemployed in the sense of the unemployment percentage that gets reported every month.
These “marginal” people include those who have fallen seriously ill, gone back to school, perhaps been forced to take care of old or sick relatives.
Or they are officially marked down as “discouraged” from looking for work, to put it mildly, to the point that they haven’t even tried in the past four weeks.
Yes, they tell the people at the unemployment office. Of course they want to work and would accept a reasonable job if one were offered. Fat chance of that.
We’re not talking about an unfortunate soul here and there. At last count, there were 1.1 million certifiably discouraged workers in the nation’s labor force.
But there are millions and millions more who ceased job-hunting long before a month ago. They don’t appear anywhere in government head counts, and they would laugh bitterly if you suggested that someone might come knocking with a job offer. For them, “discouraged” ceased to describe their state of mind long ago. You’d need darker “D words”: disgruntled, depressed, despairing, distraught, disconsolate, desperate.
Just the title of a Pew Research Center study, released last year when the Great Recession was still boiling, summed up the long-term unemployment morass — which Pew defines as out-of-work status for six months or more:
“Lost Income, Lost Friends — and Loss of Self-respect.”
At the time, unemployment stood at TWICE the figure just three years earlier. The Pew researchers called long-term unemployment “nearly the norm for the Great Recession.” The emphasis is mine, but those who’ve banged their heads against hiring managers’ doors don’t need to be reminded about the futility of it all.
Long-term joblessness wrecks not only a person’s career prospects and family finances, write Pew’s Rich Morin and Rakesh Kochhar. It “takes a much deeper toll on a person’s emotional well-being.”
As of their report last year, one-half of the nation’s unemployed — the largest percentage since World War II, had been looking for work for six months or more. That doesn’t even count the “discouraged” who have stopped trying. Nearly half of the long-term unemployed reported strained family relations, and 4 in 10 said they had lost contact with close friends.
Or the friends had lost contact with them. In the words of the old Bessie Smith song, “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.”
Four in 10 also told the Pew researchers that they had lost at least some self-respect, had sought professional help for emotional issues, and felt a “big impact” — doubtless a negative one — on their long-term career goals.
These are summary conclusions. You can imagine the anguish that went into individual responses.
When things turned dire for my own family in my youth, my mother would say, stoically. “I’ll manage somehow.” So do most of the long-term unemployed — at first. They increase credit-card debt, pull money out of savings and retirement accounts, borrow from relatives, forgo vacations and postpone medical care, take low-paying part-time jobs, sell property or even their homes if they can find buyers, or move in “temporarily” with parents, siblings, or friends.
They try their best to cope with tough and frightening situations. Imagine the toll, grain after grain in life’s hourglass, on a person’s pride, confidence, sense of well-being and security, and self-worth.
Even the researchers, Morin and Kochhar, who write in the aggregate and the abstract, felt their pain, saw the toll of “fretful nights to family fights and dwindling self-respect.”
Long-term unemployment is a terribly bitter fruit after years of hard work and sacrifice by those who become “discouraged” and worse.
We tend to see past them, try not to think about them.
Sean Snaith, an economics professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, told me that the deeply discouraged have slipped into a void. Government bean counters lose interest in them because they’re off official rolls. Journalists flock to towns where the plants have just closed; you don’t often see them checking back months later. Even mental-health professionals seem to avert the hollow gaze of the long-term unemployed.
Those with good and seemingly secure jobs sometimes smirk and snicker at the very idea of “discouragement.” It’s the lament of slackers, losers, quitters, weaklings, society’s sad sacks, they say. These people can always move to a better job market, can’t they? Or learn a new trade. Or sling burgers and stop bellyaching.
Right. Move, when they are underwater financially and at great peril of losing their homes, if the places haven’t been foreclosed already. Learn a trade at age 40 or 50 or 60 and pay for it out of the savings and retirement funds that evaporated months ago. Take a minimum-wage, dead-end job that completely devalues — what is it about “D” words? — years spent building careers with hard, productive, rewarding, often distinguished, family-supporting work.
Sometimes that family sticks by “discouraged workers,” encourages them to keep their chins up. Sometimes not. The pressure on unemployed “breadwinners” to just GET . . . A . . . JOB — any job — is withering. No bureau keeps track of the number of divorces, descents into homelessness, and suicides among the bedeviled, belittled and depressed.
I know a “discouraged worker” well, though he’s long past meeting the official criteria since he gave up job-hunting many months ago.
He is an enduring friend, a skilled, sensitive professional in a volatile field who was discarded by a new manager who had his own plans, his own “team,” his own agenda. My friend marched confidently into interview after interview and left with no new job, then slowly saw even replies to his inquiries dry to a trickle and stop. There is a direct relationship between the length of time between jobs and the likelihood of getting a new one. The longer away, the poorer the prospects, until employers assume that one’s skills have declined or that “there must be something wrong” with the applicant.
In fact there is something, many somethings that have taken hold: self-doubt, inklings of guilt, even shame — though my conscientious friend has nothing to feel shameful about.
We friends of “discouraged workers” are with them, think of them, care about them. But they are often far away. There have no “work friends” any longer. Neighbors go their own way. Kids grow and go. Spouses wonder, worry, take on more burdens themselves, can’t help showing their own despair.
Discouraged workers know, or think they know, what people think of them. They start to think it themselves. They’re losers. Failures.
Tim Smith, a television executive who’s been out of work since 2008, told the New York Times’s Catherine Rampell, “I am so worried somebody will look at me and say, ‘Oh, he’s probably lost his edge.’ I mean, I know it’s not true, but I’m afraid I might say the same thing if I were interviewing someone I didn’t know very well who’s been out of work this long.”
Smith could look in the mirror and see the brand, the scarlet letter U — for unemployed.
Pretty soon, such people don’t have the money to keep up appearances, Princeton University sociologist Katherine S. Newman told the New York Times late last year.
They can’t get new clothes. They gain weight and look out of shape, since unemployment is such a stressful experience. All that is held against them when there is such an enormous range of workers to choose from.
Almost four decades ago in 1973, Bureau of Labor Statistics economist Paul O. Flaim wrote that labor economists and policy-makers had only recently begun to pay much notice to “the many millions of working-age persons outside the labor force.” It was assumed that, with few exceptions — students, unpaid “housewives,” ne’er-do-well street people — the nation’s labor supply could be broken into two simple categories: those who worked, and those actively seeking work.
It was just dawning on labor experts that there might be a whole other subset of “discouraged” out-of-work Americans who had thrown in the towel.
Even back then, the stigma felt by such people was so strong, Flaim wrote, that many attributed their inability to find work to “ill health or other ‘socially acceptable reasons,’ rather than admit they have failed in the job market.”
About 40 years later, there are more than 1 million officially discouraged American workers on whom fear, apprehension, low self-esteem, and all those damnable D words have taken a terrible toll.
All too often they go to ground, as if they have something to hide. Those around them look away, and not just out of pity or disdain. Have you heard the expression, “There, but for the grace of God, go I?”
Actually, they’d best find a different remark. It is usually traced to 16th-Century English reformer John Bradford, who is said to have uttered it from his jail cell in the Tower of London as he watched a man being led to his execution.
And his words were prophetic. Bradford himself was burned at the stake as a heretic shortly thereafter.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Apprehension. Dread, fear or anticipation of dire trouble ahead.
Morass. In geology, a low-lying soft spot in which it’s easy to sink. Psychologically, a morass is a troublesome series of events that overwhelms you.
Scarlet letter. A mark of shame. The term traces to the letter A, once branded on the forehead of an accused adulterer. It was the name of a famous 1850 novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Throw in the towel. Give up, quit, surrender. It’s a boxing term, referring to the point when a fighter is beaten and his trainer throws a towel into the ring to alert the referee that the bout must be stopped.