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.

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71 Responses to “WASTING CAPITAL”

  1. Radical Scientist Says:

    One more general thought: I think a lot of the fundamental tension here comes from the disconnect between the best course of action for any individual, and the possible solutions to a systemic problem.

    For any one unemployed person, their best choice is to keep trying to outpace the competition–apply to everything in sight, potentially settle for a crappier job than they're qualified for, look into moving or changing careers, try to become more qualified somehow, etc. That's what I did when I was underemployed, and it eventually paid out, and that's the best advice I could give a friend in the same situation. What else can you do, really, as one person?

    But as Jack pointed out, there are some hard limits to that strategy at the macro level. If every unemployed person in America goes out and works harder at job hunting, we won't get full employment. There are just more unemployed people than vacant jobs, and job hunting doesn't create more (or better) jobs. Solutions to high unemployment at the macro level need to focus on creating more jobs, keeping people more stable within their jobs, and/or making un- and under-employment more tolerable in the meantime. There's no either/or choice between individuals trying hard to find work and making more work available. The two are not mutually exclusive, they're simultaneous strategies that work at different scales.

  2. caune Says:

    I've been working my whole life starting as an 8 year old in grandmas catering kitchen but at 49 I've been unemployed for 58 weeks now. Yes I have a college degree and 16 years experience in commercial construction…don't matter in this town at this time.

    After the first year and a half of futility I enrolled in a 10 month course to retrain as a low paid Physical therapy tech. It's been 2 weeks since I graduated and if I have to deal with much more tension and angst I think my head will explode…honestly my neck and shoulder muscles are so tight i can barely move my head and with no health insurance I can't afford to go see a Dr for help.

    BUT there may be a job on my horizon…a low paid (much less than half of what I used to make) but WITH medical benefits! And I'll be happy to have it as pathetic as the pay is. I just wish they'd call today so I could unclench my muscles LOL

  3. mojidoji Says:


    I agree with your sentiment regarding preparedness for "the worst". However, I only agree with it as a sentiment because it is literally impossible to prepare for the worst and because, as an ideology, of the implicit assumption that those who are not prepared for whatever comes up, have failed. While true in a Darwinian sense, it ignores the fact that people have some measure of control the rules of the game. If bad decisions are made and some people suffer, we don't have to say "that's the breaks"; we are able to compensate as a group, which is far more efficient than the alternative. Sure, we could all build bunkers with several years of water and food, and become insulated from the rest of the effects of society's effects, but it's inefficient. Just as planning for 99 weeks of unemployment is essentially inefficient – sure, it is sometimes the correct decision, but it usually isn't.

    This gets me to my second point: We have a systemic failure, which is by its nature, not a problem with individuals. This is a supply and demand problem, not something a self-help course will solve; it is market failure. Firms can not rectify market failure, let alone some out of work pipe fitter. Granted, this does not exonerate individuals from trying to make their life work out when the shit hits the fan, but this doesn't mean that telling them to try harder is going to change their situation. This is precisely the time when a society should step in to repair the damage, which is far more efficient than becoming protectionist. This isn't the Mad Max world.

    Again, I don't disagree with the sentiment and admire people who can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but not everyone can do that (not with ~10% unemployment), and it does not mean that they are not wonderful contributors to society the rest of the time, if they can't. Planning at a societal level is going to tend to be more efficient than planning at an individual level for these rare events. Every system I've ever seen works this way. The alternative looks like clinging to some sort of rugged individualist ideal and ignoring the efficiency of economies of scale.

  4. LucyTooners Says:

    The reality of this tectonic shift is that jobs in certain fields are scarce. My belief is that the demand for filling jobs is there but that employers are holding off for several reasons, one being to lower the salaries and benefits for the future.

    For the last decade the cost of labor has been steadily rising as the positions became more difficult to fill. It is the typical boom and bust phenomenom. I am not advocating that wages go down I just know from being in business for the last 20 years what has happened. My own wages have not increased for my occupation for 15 years.

    Unfortunately the prices of goods and services were not rising at the same rate so the companies profit margins were declining. No company wants to be squeezed. I am the financial manager for a small electrical contractor in a small market. We are the second largest in our market. For years we could not recruit enough qualified electricians to fill the demand even with competitive wages. We still do not have the best qualified but have not had as hard of a time getting employees.

    The job market will be in flux for a while. Until there is an emerging industry that cannot be outsourced we will still be competing for the left over jobs in the market.

  5. Keifus Says:

    Yeah, there's nothing wrong with the by-your-bootstraps story for those innovative and resourceful and adaptive enough to pull it off. I'm as down with that as anybody, and have nothing but respect for those who succeed along the Horatio Alger route (well, HA without all the creepy pederastic undertones, but you know what I mean).

    On the other hand, there's nothing very impressive about condemning bad luck with the special wisdom of hindsight. "Invested in housing? Made ends meet with a dual income? Got a PhD in engineering? Ooh, bad move." Had the economy grown as advertised, the same people would have been fucking geniuses. In which case the exact opposite cheap advice would have followed.

    There's some logic to valuing riskier ventures higher than secure ones. (People would avoid taking risks otherwise.) But for god's sake, let's not confuse winning a bet with any special hard work or brains. There are a couple lottery winners every month too. They're not exactly the masters of the universe.

    Hoosier: let me know if you have a remedy for this commotion in my brain…

  6. Ed Says:

    This is some high-quality moralizing.

    You're asking the wrong question. You're asking "How can I increase my odds of getting the parachute?" rather than "Why does a plane with 200 people on it have only one parachute?"

  7. acer Says:

    The plane has 500 parachutes. But two fat, drunk guys in first class get 250 each, because they earned it.

  8. eau Says:

    Actually, those two fat guys have been throwing parachutes out of the plane for the last half hour, screaming "These parachutes aren't fucking golden! Where are the fucking golden ones?".

    Sure, there's still more than two hundred left. But since that announcement from the pilot, demand has gone off the fucking charts. The fat guys are going to hold onto their rapidly appreciating assets for now. Their trending analysts predict that as long as the plane keeps going down, the price of parachutes will keep going up. WIN!

  9. Bugboy Says:

    Ed Says: "Why does a plane with 200 people on it have only one parachute?"

    Because the finance industry sold us the "American Dream" a half a century ago, which was the engine that drove housing prices beyond the affordability of those that did not participate in the circus. They continue to entertain us today, because they should be the laughing stock of the world.

    Seriously, I am not moralising or advocating boot strap anything. I got to where I am through trial and error, mostly. And dumb luck. I am nearly 50 years old and have been through economic down turns/institutionalised downsizing before. I have lost plenty, but I have a family to support so I've had to do what I have to do.

    Someone mentioned networking…I'm sorry to play career counselor but the greatest insurance against unemployment is NETWORKING. You should be doing this your whole career. If you haven't figured this out by the time you are short timing it to retirement, I feel sorry for you.

  10. Bugboy Says:

    Radical Scientist Says: "So, if only women would stay home and not draw an income…"

    Please do not mistake my illustration of the historical transition of 1 income mortgages to 2 income mortgages as any kind of statement against women. I was simply pointing to a historical trend that forced housing prices upwards out of the reach of single income households.

    There is also quite prevalent in society, the misconception that the more you do something, the greater your chances of accomplishing that goal. Call it the "Lottery Syndrome" and it is statistically described as believing your chances of winning increase the more you play, which they do not.

    Your odds of getting a job do not decrease with each application that is submitted/rejected, even though it's perfectly normal to think so.

  11. Jack Says:

    I still don't get this sentiment. If you went into the thimble business because it was booming years ago, why are you griping that you can't get a job now because nobody sews anymore? There ARE jobs out there, and Massachusetts recently announced that it's experiencing growth recently.

    Where's the money?

    Say we take your picture to be true. There were a ton of people in dying industries, they have all lost their jobs, and they're just bitching because they're not willing to jump industries.

    So where are the booming industries? If there was a $100 billion drop in demand in the thimble industry, that $100 billion has to be spent somewhere. If people are using sewing machines now, all that thimble money will be going into sewing machines and related industries. As thimbleries are closing, sewing machine engineers will be working double shifts for triple pay while their bosses desperately try to recruit more. Sewing machine companies would be plastering gigantic signs and banners boasting about their huge rates of pay at every grad fair in the country. Even as the economist printed articles about dying industries and out of work thimblers, PR flacks would be slipping in articles about the booming sewing machine industry.

    So where are these industries? How much money is going into them? Why aren't they screaming at the top of their lungs that they can't find any decent workers even for gigantic salaries? What are immigrant families mercilessly browbeating their children into becoming?

    The other option is that demand for goods and services is decreasing because demand for money/bonds/safe assets has boomed. This is a problem that can be solved by, you guessed it, fiscal stimulus.

    What is "Stimulus Mk II?" How does it reduce unemployment? Paying people to stay at home and not send resumes out? Massive government purchases of thimbles even though they're an obsolete technology? Isn't that how the soviet system eventually failed?

    While you could just pay people to bury pots of money and pay other people to dig them back up, I understand that most states are having to brutally slash their budgets because of lost payroll taxes and that infrastructure isn't in great shape.

    Sooo, pay a bunch of firefighters, police officers and garbage collectors to fight fires, keep the peace and collect the garbage. At the same time, rebuild a load of roads, sewer systems and bridges. Private contractors and suppliers get money and stop falling to bits, they pay their suppliers, they become sounder investments for banks who are more willing to give them credit, their employees spend on private goods, the economy grows, inflation eventually starts to rise, interest rates rise with it, and then spending can be pared back as interest rates are cut.

    As Keynes said, the engine of capitalism hasn't broken, it's just got a flat battery and needs a jump start.

    When bugboy said "there isn't one for every man, woman and child" I'm pretty sure he meant that people aren't GIVEN jobs, they FIND jobs. Much like lifejackets. So your assertion that there are NO jobs out there is just misguided.

    Job hunting in a market like this is a negative sum game. The harder you work to get a job, the harder it is for everyone else to get a job and vice versa.

    As Kiefus said, it's silly moralizing and victim blaming, and if the housing market hadn't gone insane and then bottomed out all these people who invested in housing and got MBAs and PhDs would look like geniuses. It's like the bullshit rape victims get where whatever they did, it was wrong. Wear revealing clothes and act flirty? You led him on. Wear modest clothes and act demure? You looked weak and vunerable. Get attacked outside by a stranger? Going out alone for milk is too dangerous. Get attacked in your house by a friend? You were an idiot to trust him (and led him on also too).

    Bought a house with a down payment before getting laid off because your companies credit lines were cut at the exact time that private demand plummeted and public services had to make brutal cuts; now living in an underwater house and unable to find work? Your fault for not seeing a housing bubble, not investing solely in US treasuries and TIPS and not
    jumping into the numerous (but unnamed) industries that are booming; and if you don't jump at the thought of eating the shit sandwich that is sending out a hundred resumes for jobs well below your pay grade with several hundred applicants per place, then you're nothing but a griping looter.

  12. Jack Says:

    goddamnit, that was massive and none of the quote tags worked

  13. Bugboy Says:


    There are a whole lot of assumptions there. For my part I don't get what your point is with your convoluted hypotheticals. The more intricate you get the more removed from reality you get.

    It's not a zero sum because everyone isn't looking for the same job at the same time, and the number of jobs is a dymanic situation that is dependent on whether businesses feel inclined to invest in manpower to grow their business, nothing more. I remember the last recession recovery, businesses ended up spending so much in overtime to keep up with new business, they finally had an epiphany that maybe they should hire some full time staff as it would be cheaper than paying overtime. Pretty soon unemployment was heading downward again and businesses were back to full staff. All because those magical MBA's seem to forget the golden rule: "You have to spend money to make money" Right now they all seem to think the economy is going to grow itself, or someone else is going to do it for them, taking all the risks so they don't have to. Real heroes they are.

    There isn't some magical industry that is going to save us all, it's spread amongst the millions of entrepeneurs that are holding back for fear of going in the tank farther…as many have said the market is not a rational thing.

  14. Andrew Says:

    It's not a zero sum because everyone isn't looking for the same job at the same time, and the number of jobs is a dymanic situation that is dependent on whether businesses feel inclined to invest in manpower to grow their business, nothing more.

    Which would mean you're admitting the problem is systemic and therefore not entirely under the control of a person who "improves his skills", "moves to where the jobs are", "rents instead of owns", etc.

  15. Andrew Says:

    I mean, when you have somewhere between 10% and 20% unemployment, depending upon who you ask, I don't think it's possible to argue that the problem is that jobs are there, just people aren't taking them.

    Also, I'd argue that if MBAs need a kick in the pants before they realize it's time to hire rather than pay more overtime and time to purchase improvements to the company rather than get by on what they have, this is *exactly the time* for government to step in and facilitate that.

    Basically, I don't understand this throwing up of one's hands and saying "nothing to be done about it, that's the economy" while simultaneously moralizing at the lazy unemployed who won't move from Ohio to West Virginia to work in a mine.

  16. Nunya Says:

    As I read the comments of BugBoy and others that explain that there are jobs available to all assuming you aren't underwater in your house, have the requisite training and education, aren't over 40, and are willing to work from less that half of what you made only a few years ago, I shake my head at the lack of understanding that what we are facing in this crisis is a crushing lack of demand.

    The moment the housing financial bubble popped, employers shed 3 million jobs. This happened within a few months without taking into consideration just how serious the crisis was. Well, those 3 million people slashed their spending as did many million of others who saw more and more jobs being shed in virtually every industry. The cycle continued unabated. Banks refused to lend, consumers spent even less and fought mightily to pay off debt. Employers responded by cutting wages, health insurance, 401K matching, and any other nod to their employees wellbeing.

    And suddenly, business found themselves sitting on huge piles of cash. They had skeleton crews who were so desperate to hang onto their now seriously underpaid jobs that they decided to heap even more work on the few they still had in their employ. After all, with all of the talk of overtime in this comments section, it is almost completely dead in this country. Employers can essentially hire wage slaves. You have a job but the amount of hours you are required to put in in order to keep it has gone up, on average, about 50% all for no additional renumeration.

    We now have over 15 Million unemployed people in this country. Sure, we lost some jobs to outsoucing, some to automation, but the single largest loss of jobs goes to those who are now doing the work of 3 or more of their fallen former coworkers.

    There is more than enough room to employ Americans. The solution involves three rather fundamental shifts in our understanding of employment.

    1. Seal the exits – enact fair trade policies that will require equal trade with foreign nations i.e. you buy from us at an equal rate as we bu from you.

    2. Reduce the workweek – make the maximum work week 35 hours. Require overtime for everyone, no one is exempt except C-Level executives. Time and a half for up to 45 hours, double time to 55 hours and triple time above that.

    3. Raise the floor – Minimum wage should have a 3 year target of $15.00/hour. No one should live in poverty while working a full time job. Also, pass card check and give unions a chance to gain a foothold in every industry.

    The predatory super-capitalism we have in this country needs to be fundamentally changed. Our government should be looking out for its people instead of heaping tax breaks on large business and clearing the way for us to compete for jobs with every third world nation on the planet.

    Why we kick ourselves and blame others for not learning to network, not having some clairoyant view of the next bubble industry, or for having the audacity to want to set down roots and raise a family is deeply unsettling.

    Labor has lost its voice in this country. We blindly accept the power of our corporate masters without even considering the massive increases in efficiency that should have raised the standard of living in this country immensely instead of moving us closer to 1933 in terms of expectation.

    Yes, there will always be winners and losers in society but we are all learning just how easy it is to go from the former to the latter with a keystroke from the efficiency expert your former boss called in who decided you were no longer keeping employed.

    How prepared will you be when it's your turn?

  17. pinch Says:

    Dude, you should save money and prepare to employ yourself, earn money some other way.

  18. My Says:

    Phuknay, Nunya, you winner, you.
    Your 3 points are on point.
    Unfortunately, we have a nation full of cattle tangled in the barbed wire of their diminutive attention spans, bleeding their human dignity all over the P&L sheets of the vampiric power elite as they stroke their pet media siren songbirds singing, a la Maynard, "Go back to sleep!"

  19. eau Says:

    Nunya wins the internets today.

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