The problem of long-term unemployment cannot wait until after the 2012 election. Jeffrey Goldberg –usually of The Atlantic, but writing today for Bloomberg describes our two-tiered economy and the consequences of long-term unemployment in the lives of those in the all-but-invisible, lower tier:
The upper tier is populated by people without elaborate toolboxes but with advanced degrees and superior analytical, creative and interpersonal skills. . . . . They feel few, if any, effects of the recession.
The lower tier is made up of people in places like Phoenix and Las Vegas and Tampa, Florida, who are educationally and even dispositionally ill-equipped for a globalized economy. The recession was a body blow to these people, of course, but they are also suffering because of some longer-term and more systematic problems, such as our neglect of our national infrastructure (think of the jobs that would have been created if we had taken care of our bridges, highways and airports over the past 30 years), our long journey away from manufacturing, and the painful consequences of increased automation and globalization.
The Janesville GM workers fell into this lower tier — men who may not have excelled at school but who knew how to make things and fix things.
Men, in fact, are the main victims in this economy. [Don Peck’s book,] “Pinched[,]” describes a downturn in which men with limited education have suffered disproportionately, and perhaps permanently.
About three-quarters of the 8 million jobs that disappeared in 2008 and 2009 were held by men, and many industries dominated by men, such as construction, were devastated. The economy now needs nurses, not assembly-line workers. Men can and do work as nurses, but many men — and especially, Peck says, men who pride themselves on the toughness of their jobs — loathe the idea of work in what they see as feminized fields. And they are terrified by the thought of returning to the classroom. So what do they do instead?
“They leave the workforce,” Peck told me. “In 1967, among men with a high-school degree between the ages of 30 and 50, 97 percent had jobs. Today, it’s 76 percent. There are a lot of guys who are just leaving the workforce.”
What happens next, of course, is disaster.
“When you have these communities where you have a lot of people without much education, and all of a sudden the construction and manufacturing jobs are lost, the guys don’t know what to do, and the whole community changes,” Peck said. “You have a very low marriage rate, but women still want to have kids and do have kids. Couples just don’t stay together.”
He went on, “These men derive so much of their sense of self-worth from their jobs, and that translates into happy marriages, good family, strong churches and civic life, clean streets, deep friendships, lower rates of domestic violence, far less drinking and much more stability generally.”
. . . among people unemployed for seven months or more, 46 percent said they had become quick to anger; a majority said they tried to avoid encountering friends and acquaintances; and 14 percent said they had become substance abusers. Rates of out-of-wedlock births that were once seen as socially catastrophic are now the norm in some communities.
These unemployed men also sound like the kind of folks who might find the simple solutions advocated by “tough” candidates Perry and Bachmann very satisfying. Perhaps this is why some of the GOP presidential field are employing rhetoric that seems extreme and oversimplified. Simple is not what we need now. The “paradox of thrift” is, for example, if nothing else, the result of a very basic instinct: In hard times, one should save, buying only what is essential. But, just as certainly, as everyone in a position to buy postpones most spending (even governments), aggregate demand shrinks to such an extent that the economic pain is deeper and lasts longer. What’s needed is extraordinary leadership to crawl out of this trap. Where is it, I wonder?