Farewell to Jobs

According to a recently released AP-GfK poll, 32% of Americans are crazy.

Oh, sorry. The poll actually revealed that 47% of those
asked worry "a lot" or "some" about the possibility of losing their
jobs. True, that's nearly twice as many as the same poll detected in
February 2008, when only 28% of Americans polled raised their hands and
acknowledged anxiety.

More noteworthy, though, and much more difficult to explain, is this
conundrum: If the AP-GfK poll is to be trusted, almost one-third of all
Americans say that they are worried about losing their jobs "not much"
or "not at all."

Let's think about what this means. The current official U.S. unemployment rate
of 7.6% (up from 7.2% just one month earlier) doesn't faze this
optimistic bunch; nor, we might assume, would the news that the real unemployment rate
is probably closer to 14%, if you include all those people who are
involuntarily underemployed because part-time jobs are the only ones
they can find. (The most realistic unemployment figure is undoubtedly
higher still, if you include all the previously "self-employed" people
whose income has dried up along with the economy.)

Yet even sticking to that 7.6% figure, there are still 4.1 million
more people out of work now than 12 months ago. Evidently, that doesn't
faze this self-confident group either. Sixty-five percent of survey
respondents reported that a friend had lost a job thanks to the
cratering economy in the past six months. Twenty-five percent had a
family member who had lost a job during this period. It seems that
doesn't get to them either... but you get the idea.

An astonishing 32% of those surveyed by AP-GfK are somehow confident
that they, at least, are secure in their jobs. (The missing 21% checked
off "didn't apply" to the question, including presumably the 10% of
those polled who reported already getting the ax during the past six
months.) A recent New York Times/CBS News Poll came up with similar findings. In that poll, a marginally larger and so marginally more astonishing 35% of Americans reported themselves not in the least concerned that someone in their household might be out of work in the next 12 months.

Thinking about this optimistic third of Americans, it's hard not to reach one basic conclusion: They're nuts.

Surveying the Layoff Landscape

Polls like these attract respectful attention from the mainstream
media. An Associated Press article about the AP-GfK poll, with the
typical headline, "Fears over Economy Growing, Poll Says," found its way into newspapers across the country, including the Seattle Times, Sacramento Bee, Washington Times, and Star Tribune
of Minneapolis/St. Paul. The article breezed through a batch of fairly
predictable findings: lots of people are worried about paying their
bills; they're afraid that the value of their stocks and retirement
investments will drop; and more than half of poll respondents aren't
confident that they will have enough money to live comfortably in
retirement.

Yet, for anyone who actually considered the poll, or read between the
lines of that widely-reprinted AP article, one question seems too
pressing to ignore: How, in the present economic environment, could 32%
of Americans fail to grasp that job security no longer exists -- not in
the U.S., nor elsewhere in the global economy. Today's most salient
question isn't, will you lose your job (if you still have one), but
when?

No
question, it's getting harder and harder to count on a paycheck. That's
certainly true for all the people who have spent their work lives in
industries now visibly disintegrating around them (which would include
automobile manufacturing, journalism, book publishing, and the rest of
the media, the retail sector, financial services, construction, and so
on). It's hardly less true for countless people living in one of the 40
or so states with significant budget gaps that need to be plugged,
states where cutbacks along the lines of California's recent budget
cataclysm are just waiting to happen.

Today, few industries and careers can be considered "safe." After all,
technology giants like National Semiconductor and Dell have already
begun laying people off; so has that symbol-of-all-symbols Microsoft,
which recently announced the first major layoff in the company's
history. Tiny branches of local libraries are laying people off too,
despite the fact that, in many communities, libraries have emerged as
communal gathering spots for unemployed people of all ages and at all
stages in their careers.

Meanwhile, throughout the global marketplace, mass firings have
become an acceptable knee-jerk reaction to whatever bad news comes
along. Indeed, the layoff has become the default management mechanism
for employers of every shape, size, and financial condition. To take
just one prominent example, in its restructuring plan, which General
Motors recently submitted to the Treasury Department, the company
requested as much as $30 billion in bailout funds while promising, in
return, to cut 47,000 employees worldwide. How much more would it cost
to save those jobs? Unfortunately, that kind of bailout isn't going to
be on anybody's table.

Perhaps AP-GfK should have polled people about whether or not they
expected mass layoffs at their places of employment. As defined by the
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a mass layoff occurs
whenever at least 50 initial claims for unemployment insurance are
filed by the former employees of any single establishment during a
five-week period. During December 2008 alone, there were, by those
standards, 2,275 mass layoff "events" nationwide, down slightly from
November's record high of 2,333. As a point of comparison, there were
"just" 1,352 mass layoffs in November 2007 and 1,469 the following
month.

More bad news, more layoffs. This pattern has become mind-numbingly
predictable, which, perhaps, makes it easier for those non-anxious
job-holders to ignore. Or maybe they are just the type of people who
deny the possibility that anything really bad could ever happen to
them, regardless of what's going on elsewhere.

Layoff announcements tend to happen on Mondays or Fridays. (Good poll
question: Do you try to skip the news on Mondays and Fridays?) With
this downturn getting worse, it's a likely bet, though, that most days
are layoff days someplace or other. So it may well be that those who
want to keep denying the realities of job insecurity will need to stop
watching or reading the news entirely. Maybe that 32% already has.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also reports on
what it calls "extended" mass layoffs, which is what happens when
private sector nonfarm employers report that 50 or more employees have
remained out of work for at least 31 days. During the fourth quarter of
2008, 3,140 extended mass layoffs left 508,859 people "separated" from
their jobs. Not surprisingly, these are the highest numbers since the
BLS started recording this data in 1995. The construction and
manufacturing sectors hit record highs for extended mass layoffs, and
so did eight states: Alaska, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana,
Missouri, New Jersey, and Wyoming.

Living on the Moon

In my admittedly random survey of the universe, the only men and women
I can find who seem to feel secure in their jobs are teachers with
tenure. Now it's possible that those 32% of survey respondents who
believe things are A-OK are on tenured faculties. But if that's so, I
think the pollsters should have disclosed it.

Only kidding. In evaluating just how out-of-touch-with-reality that
third of AP-Gfk's respondents really are, it would have been
interesting to know a little bit about their jobs, employers, and
industries. The health-care sector, for example, managed to eke out job
growth consistently throughout last year. Yet according to the Bureau,
once you turn to other areas of the economy, the so-called hires rate decreased
during 2008 in a number of fields, including the durable goods
manufacturing sector, as well as nondurable goods manufacturing, the
retail trade, the arts, entertainment, and recreation, not to speak of
"accommodation and food services," the Federal government, and state
and local governments pretty much across the board. That same "hires
rate" declined in all four regions of the U.S. in the same period, with
the largest declines in the South. (Possible poll question: Do you live
on the moon?)

Here's something else I don't understand about that recent poll or
coverage of it: Rational people tend to feel greater levels of job
insecurity the more they read about layoffs and experience job loss
around them. In total, there were 7,818 extended mass layoffs during
2008. Factors like declining demand for business goods and services,
contract cancellations, and excess inventory accounted for 44% of those
layoffs. And those same factors aren't going away anytime soon. Most
people sense that. At least I think they do.

Consider James Johnson, who recently emailed this note to my website, EconoWhiner.com
(all names have been changed to protect confidentiality): "I called a
contact at one of our client's offices only to be told that she had
been laid off last week," James reported. And that was just the
beginning. "I headed into a meeting with another client and right
before that meeting began, they called one of my colleagues, my best
friend at the office, into a side meeting where they fired him -- part
of a large bank layoff. It was the closest this has come to me losing
my job and I felt that the Depression had hit."

It's a pretty good bet that James, although still employed, would be
one of those people reporting at least some work anxiety. Who wouldn't?
As a longtime journalist, married to a longtime editor, living on the
same island as Wall Street, it's fair to say we have so many friends
who are out of work that actually having
a job is coming to seem odd. I can practically count on one hand the
families I know in which both spouses seem "safely" employed.

Denial as a Job Strategy

In a global job market that seems to offer few safe havens, I'd go so
far as to argue that most rational people are scared witless. Many
working and nonworking people don't have a clue about what to do next.
If they're still employed, they're knocking on wood. Maybe that's one
reason at least some of those 32% claimed not to be anxious -- they
were superstitious and didn't want to jinx themselves. For other
people, there may well be a sense of "why bother?" Why acknowledge job
anxieties when you're only going to feel more stymied or confused as a
result? After all, it's not as though there are obvious ways to plan or
redirect your career path in a world that seems to be increasingly full
of job dead ends. Then again, for at least some within this large
group, "ignorance is bliss" may feel more like a career strategy than a
cliche.

Yet, mustering all the possible explanations I can conjure up, I
still don't get it. I still can't quite understand how anyone, let
alone one-third of all Americans, could deny the realities of our
ever-more precarious workplace. Listen to Annette Miller, who recently
told EconoWhiner:

"I have retrained several times, relocated many times,
and always survived, at least until now. This time it really is
different, and I think that everyone can sense that. It feels like
there are no actual jobs at the end of the Monster.com, Twitter, and
Facebook rainbow -- it's really all one big support group. No one gets
to go to a regular place every day where they get paid on a regular
basis. But everyone pretends anyway, because what's the alternative to
this ceaseless networking? Sitting at home rewriting your resume one
more time?"

How about a poll question that asks, "If you lose your job, do you
expect to be out of work for a relatively short or a relatively long
time?" After all, long-term unemployment, which the Bureau of Labor
Statistics officially defines as being jobless for 27 weeks or more,
has doubled
in the past 12 months. Back in January 2008, 1.3 million people fell
into this category. In January 2009, the number was 2.6 million.

Here's how Gene Dawson recently described the situation in a comment to EconoWhiner:

"I have been out of work (and getting by with
freelancing, but that well is soon running dry) for 17 months. 'I
couldn't get arrested' pretty much describes my life for the past year,
after working hard for 15 years in an industry in which I was known for
my extensive network, quality work, and integrity. Whatever."

Another promising poll question: If you lose your job and are out of
work for a long period of time, will that be because of your lack of
skills or the absence of job possibilities? After all, on the last
business day of 2008, there were just 2.7 million job openings
in the United States, bringing the job-openings rate to 1.9% -- the
lowest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started monitoring this
eight years ago.

What's it like to be looking for a job when there essentially aren't
any? Roberta Higgins caught the mood of the moment in this way:

"I was laid off in May 2008 from a job I was sure I
would have until I retired. So now I spend my days sending my resume
into the black hole of the Internet, not sure if it even reached its
destination. I was completely overwhelmed when I actually received a
letter in the mail from an organization that informed me I did not get
the job I had applied for but was more than welcome to reapply if
another opening came available. I keep it in a special place so that
when I feel totally disconnected from the outside world I can take it
out and read it."

How close are we all to this work-related abyss?

One important lesson that a poll like this one has to offer is, quite
simply, that polls can only tell us so much. And sometimes, it's not
really very much at all. After all, if it's true that we can't dream
about our own deaths, maybe we can't contemplate a world in which the
skills that we've learned, the jobs that we've worked at, the employers
who have hired us, and the industries that we've taken for granted are
disappearing all around us. Maybe that one-third of Americans are
simply in denial. Maybe the real story is, why aren't more of us?