WASTING CAPITAL

Posted in Rants on October 27th, 2010 by Ed

Not known for its hard-hitting reporting these days, 60 Minutes actually has quite a heartbreaking piece up about people who have been on unemployment for 99 weeks with benefits set to expire soon (aka "99ers"). It introduces us to the usual cast of Great Recession characters – the former six-figure management type reduced to trips to the soup kitchen, the comfortable middle class people foreclosed and living in cars, etc. – but takes the extra step of pointing out the amount of education and supposedly relevant skills possessed by some of these long-term unemployed. People who have Ph.Ds or Master's Degrees in high-tech fields are exactly the kind of people who aren't supposed to be unemployed. In fact, the less educated unemployed are lectured at length about how they would not be unemployed if only they had acquired in-demand skills in high-tech fields. Yet they're standing next to one another in the same unemployment line.

The jarring part about their shared story is the long, painful process of adjusting their expectations downward. People who are gainfully employed and/or highly educated, when laid off, are likely to feel as the interviewees do: "Six months, tops, and I'll have a new job." The idea that 99 weeks – two years – and five hundred applications could pass without a job offer is difficult for people to grasp when they have done All the Right Things for their entire professional life. They've worked hard, they've been flexible, they've continued to acquire training and education, and they've been some approximation of responsible with their financial decisions. Surely, given 99 weeks, something will come up.

Well, no. Something won't. More accurately, when something does come up there will be 500 applicants for every open position, causing the odds of even the highly qualified to approach zero. I empathize with their plight, although I am terribly fortunate to have gainful employment (temporarily) while I search for a job relevant to my education. If I could go back three years and tell myself I would be on the job market for three years – and hey, let's just assume there will be a fourth – without a job offer I wouldn't believe it. Not that I think I'm hot shit (on the contrary, I understand that I am ordinary, unheated shit) but the odds that something wouldn't come up in three years? Implausible. Yet here we are. Like the 99ers, I am faced with the mathematical reality that every position for which I apply is getting 200-300 other applicants, all reasonably to supremely qualified. At absolute random my odds would be about 0.3%, and given the fact that the process is not truly random – surely the Harvard and Stanford folks have better odds – my chances aren't even that good. What can one do in this situation except continue to apply and get used to the reality that we'll soon be working service industry jobs that barely require a GED? My "99" will be up soon enough when my current position expires next year. I'd like to think I won't be picking up groceries from a food bank or cleaning the bathroom at Target, but I bet the college graduates doing that all over the country these days felt the same way right up to the moment when reality won out.

I understand the urge to blame the unemployed for unemployment. It's easy, and in some cases it even makes a sliver of sense. What I don't understand is how we can continue limping along in a system that turns employment into a PowerBall-like crapshoot irrespective of how many whiz-bangs and postgraduate degrees our demoralized workforce manages to acquire. The longstanding goal of conservative politics and economics is to create an America in which the top 5% of the population has phenomenal wealth while everyone else makes $9/hr with no benefits. They've been waiting patiently for their utopia since the 1970s, so I don't suppose that making them wait an extra 99 weeks is a big deal.