The New Poor
Unemployed, and Likely to Stay That Way
Benjamin Norman for The New York Times
Tim Smyth, 51, a New York television producer, has been unable to find work since 2008, despite having two decades of experience.
By CATHERINE RAMPELL
Published: December 2, 2010
The longer people stay out of work, the more trouble they have finding new work.
The New Poor
Out of the Running
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Graphic Tougher Times for the Unemployed
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Gregory Bull/Associated Press
Waiting in line to register at a career fair in San Diego. Employers sometimes worry that prolonged joblessness undermines skills.
“Being 60, I can tell you few people will consider me more than just a passing glance when they see the number of years I have on me vs. the number of years remaining.”
jbeeler, Jacksonville, FL
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That is a fact of life that much of Europe, with its underclass of permanently idle workers, knows all too well. But it is a lesson that the United States seems to be just learning.
This country has some of the highest levels of long-term unemployment — out of work longer than six months — it has ever recorded. Meanwhile, job growth has been, and looks to remain, disappointingly slow, indicating that those out of work for a while are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Even if the government report on Friday shows the expected improvement in hiring by business, it will not be enough to make a real dent in those totals.
So the legions of long-term unemployed will probably be idle for significantly longer than their counterparts in past recessions, reducing their chances of eventually finding a job even when the economy becomes more robust.
“I am so worried somebody will look at me and say, ‘Oh, he’s probably lost his edge,’ ” said Tim Smyth, 51, a New York television producer who has been unable to find work since 2008, despite having two decades of experience at places like Nickelodeon and the Food Network. “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.”
Mr. Smyth’s anxieties are not unfounded. New data from the Labor Department, provided to The New York Times, shows that people out of work fewer than five weeks are more than three times as likely to find a job in the coming month than people who have been out of work for over a year, with a re-employment rate of 30.7 percent versus 8.7 percent, respectively.
Likewise, previous economic studies, many based on Europe’s job market struggles, have shown that people who become disconnected from the work force have more trouble getting hired, probably because of some combination of stigma, discouragement and deterioration of their skills.
This is one of the biggest challenges facing policy makers in the United States as they seek to address unemployment. Its underlying tenet — that time exacerbates the problem — means that the longer Congress squabbles about how to increase job growth, the more intractable the situation becomes. This, in turn, means Washington would need to pursue more aggressive (and, perversely, more politically difficult) job-creating policies in order to succeed. Even reaching an agreement over whether to extend benefits yet again has proved contentious.
Several factors lead to this downward spiral of the unemployed.
In some cases, the long-term unemployed were poor performers in their previous positions and among the first to be terminated when the recession began. These people are weak job candidates with less impressive résumés and references.
In other instances, those who lost jobs may have been good workers but were laid off from occupations or industries that are in permanent decline, like manufacturing.
But economists have tried to control for these selection issues, and studies comparing the fates of similar workers have also shown that the experience of unemployment itself damages job prospects.
If jobless workers had been in sales, for instance, their customers might have moved on. Or perhaps the list of contacts they could turn to for leads is obsolete. Mr. Smyth, for example, says that so many of his former co-workers have been displaced that he is no longer sure whom to call on about openings.
In particularly dynamic industries, like software engineering, unemployed workers might also miss out on new developments and fail to develop the skills required.
Still, this explanation probably applies to only a small slice of the country’s 6.2 million long-term unemployed.
“I can’t imagine very many occupations and industries are of the type that if you’re out for nine months, the world passes you by,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research organization. “I think this erosion-of-skills idea is way overplayed. It’s probably much more about marketability.”
Many unemployed workers fret about how to explain the yawning gaps on their résumés. Some are calling themselves independent “consultants” or “entrepreneurs.”
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This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 4, 2010
An article on Friday about the job prospects of the long-term unemployed referred incompletely to the background of Jay Goltz, who was quoted offering the perspective of an employer. Besides owning five small businesses in Chicago, he also writes the Thinking Entrepreneur posts for The Times’s You’re the Boss blog.
A version of this article appeared in print on December 3, 2010, on page B1 of the New York edition.