Discouraged Workers

Posted March 18th, 2011 at 1:14 pm (UTC-4)

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.

Do you see the irony here?  It's the worker who needs help.

Do you see the irony here? It's the worker who needs help.

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:

Lots of people do everything in their power to end the hard times.  But the way out is often not in their control.

Lots of people do everything in their power to end the hard times. But the way out is often not in their control.

“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.

When life is grim month after month, it's hard to be "up" and optimistic.

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.

Things are usually tense in the family of "discouraged workers."  How could they not be?

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.

Down-and-out workers soon feel undesirable, invisible.

Down-and-out workers soon feel undesirable, invisible.

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.

"Get a job."  Sounds easy enough until you've tried it in today's tight economy.

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 Timess 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 cant 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.

Career ladders can quickly, and indefinitely, turn into career slides.

Career ladders can quickly, and indefinitely, turn into career slides.

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.

After while, not just one's job prospects but also one's life, can look a lot like this.

After while, not just one's job prospects but also one's life, can look a lot like this.

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.

10 responses to “Discouraged Workers”

  1. Derrell Cox II says:

    Great article Ted! It captures well the plight of d-word workers. Thanks for writing about this issue and bringing it to public attention. It seems our society needs to engage in a long-term discussion about the unaccounted human costs associated with free-market capitalism that prioritizes profits over people.

  2. jim g says:

    so so so true — It is so difficult when you feel as though you are slipping downward and don’t know if you will be able to recover. Friends and family often do not really understand what you are dealing with. And also, there are some political pundits who pile on these people, who often are forced to seek public assistance, calling them lazy and unambitious among other names. Most end up without any type heath insurance. Mental health resources are almost non existent. One example is that most people don’t realize that most of those who are lucky enough to qualify for Medicaid have had they’re mental health therapy benefits stopped because of budget cuts, that hurt those who need help most. The compassion that has been said to exist in this country is disappearing from our government and is unable to be handled by or not wanted to be handled by the private sector. Sorry if I have to seemed to vent but these are only some of the things that I wish more people were aware of.

  3. i was reading throught some of the posts and i find them to be plumb interesting. pathetic my english is not exaclty the exceptionally best. would there be anyway to transalte this into my patois, spanish. it would actually better me a lot. since i could set side by side the english terminology to the spanish language.

  4. tland says:

    Dear country music 2011,

    I’d love to see the blog translated into SEVERAL languages spoken by my readers, but alas, no one has raised his or her hand to do it. Thanks for slogging through what must be a difficult “read.”


  5. jzzy55 says:

    Just found this through a series of links. I’m a discouraged worker in my 50s. After raising our son and working part-time, I went back to school, got a teacher license in a supposedly high-demand speciality and…three years later…nothing. Because of our financial status (good) I don’t need an hourly-wage job and haven’t much enjoyed the ones I’ve tried because of the poor treatment and lack of respect shown for my abilities, degrees, years of experience and maturity. Although I am too young to be retired I know jokingly call myself “pre-retired.” It isn’t really funny. Fortunately I have friends in all stages of employment from living off their deceased parents’ sizable estates to barely getting by on hourly work, and I don’t feel judged. My husband, who has a good job, just wants me to be happy. I will say this though: while I am lucky, and I know it, to be in good financial shape nonetheless, it strikes me as a huge waste of human capital that someone intelligent, productive, experienced and well-educated has no contribution to make as a wage earner. I do lots of volunteer work which I enjoy, but it’s not the same.

  6. tland says:

    Dear jzzy55,

    You raise some pretty “heavy” and poignant issues, to which thousands, if not millions, of underutilized Americans can relate. You are indeed “lucky” to have a spouse who loves you and wants you to be happy. At least you have that rock upon which to stand. I have a friend who also discouraged; more so, actually. He’s given up. And he rejects my entreaties that he get involved in something he enjoys or in something in which he can make a tangible contribution that will give him a sense of purpose. I get the distinction between being paid for your efforts (and thus recognized in a very important way) and merely finding satisfaction without monetary compensation. But if you have time, I think my readers would love to read how YOU make that distinction, and why — even though your family’s not in financial distress — why, as you put it, “it’s not the same.”

  7. jzzy55 says:

    Why is volunteering not the same? Where do I begin…for one thing, most volunteer work does not involve what I think of as higher-order thinking. I’m just not using my brain in the same way I did when I had white-collar jobs in advertising, marketing and magazine publishing and teaching that drew on my creative and verbal skills. I use other skills, but not the ones I used for my paid work. I don’t think that’s good for me over the long haul, cognitively, and it’s also a bit boring. And a waste.
    The one time I did creative work for a non-profit, they gave me no credit in the extensive media coverage which highlighted my ideas, and then had the nerve to ask me to roll out my innovative pilot project into a huge program — unpaid and working only invisibly behind the scenes. At least when I’m working for money, even if I get no credit, I get a check! My pride was wounded. That was a while ago, and when I turn this over in my mind now as I write this, I still don’t regret telling them to go jump in a lake. I felt they were taking advantage of me as a middle-aged, financially comfortable woman, and I Just Said No to that. They could have scraped up some token payment for me, but they didn’t want to. I had an unpaid summer internship in college — the organization “suddenly” found a salary for me when I told them I was out of rent money and had to go home. If I had the stones to advocate for myself at 21, I’m not backpedalling at 56!
    Secondly, for me personally, it’s not the same working for free vs being paid. Women in my family work, including older generations, whether they had to or not. My mother is still working three days/week at 85. They liked/like working. They were/are good at their work. They had/have autonomy from working. Not every woman experiences that, and I think it’s a great family tradition. (Can I talk myself into feeling autonomous even when I’m not earning money? Of course, but it takes some effort.)
    Finally, I tend to be somewhat disorganized and unfocused without deadlines and external demands. With my skills, there is a lot I could be doing, but I won’t and I don’t. Volunteer work doesn’t even touch that problem. It’s actually pretty hard to find cerebral volunteer work, at least where I live (not a major metro area).
    Still, I enjoy volunteering. I volunteer in the state foster care system, and I serve clients at our local food pantry. These are good things and I look forward to them. I hope your friend can find a way to see the value in something worthwhile that resonates for him.

  8. jzzy55 says:

    I would like to add something else to my post above. I just (ten minutes ago) found out that my one-hour/week paid after-school special education tutoring job is ending two months sooner than I was originally told. It was only one hour/week, but the check for doing the work I was trained for still matters. More than I would have expected, judging from the deflated feeling I’m experiencing right now.

  9. tland says:

    Dear jzzy55,

    We learn more from the kinds of shared human experiences that you describe than from reports, studies, and commentaries, often by people who have not lived in those moments. You bring things to light that I’d have never thought of, just sort of assuming, for instance, that only good could come from volunteering.

    I wish you the very best in finding meaningful work for which you are justly compensated. Please keep reading, and weigh in again often, as your thoughts are provocative and insightful. And at a minimum for those of us who have read these three entries, drop us a line through the blog when your situation changes — hopefully for the better.


  10. tland says:

    Dear Jeremy,

    I’m not a lighthouse expert, and neither is Carol. But for the moment I’m sticking with the photo as the Nubble. We’re doing some digging, and other readers can help us, too. If you’re right, Jeremy, I’ll correct this in a flash.



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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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