TOPICS > Economy

Unemployment, Underemployment Reading Tops 14%

March 6, 2009 at 6:10 PM EDT
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The Labor Department's release of new unemployment numbers Friday had analysts comparing the job market in the current recession to the jobless rate in 1982. New York Times reporter David Leonhardt draws parallels from the past and assesses the current crisis.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To help us understand more about these job losses and some of the larger trends in this unemployment picture, we’re joined again by David Leonhardt, an economics columnist for the New York Times.

David, good to have you with us again.

DAVID LEONHARDT, New York Times: Thank you. Nice to be back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: First of all, how do these job losses compare with jobs picture previous recessions?

DAVID LEONHARDT: They’re clearly much worse than any of the job losses we had in the last two recessions, which were in 2001 and in 1990-1991. They’re now on about the same scale of the kind of job loss we saw in the early ’80s recession, the 1981-1982 recession.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were just telling me, David, that if you add in the people who are working part time but would like to have a full-time job, I mean, if you add in those people who’ve given up looking, the job picture looks much worse.

DAVID LEONHARDT: That’s right. The official unemployment rate is 8.1 percent, but the official unemployment rate has a number of technical reasons why it tends to understate actual unemployment.

So if we were to throw in people who are no longer actively looking for a job but would very much like one if they could find one, the unemployment rate probably goes to something like 10 percent.

And then if we were to include people who were part-time workers but would like to be working full time — and I think it’s fair to have a debate about whether they should be considered unemployed or employed, but they’re not working as much as they would like — that takes the rate to 14.8 percent, according to a Labor Department measure.

And that didn’t exist back in the early ’80s, that measure, but I think, if it had, based on some other things, it probably would have been about 17 percent in 1982. So this is not yet as bad as the early ’80s recession, but it’s quickly moving in that direction.

A 'nationwide recession'

JUDY WOODRUFF: So give us a sense of how these job losses break down, which sectors of the economy, which types of jobs are being lost.

DAVID LEONHARDT: Yes. The worst job losses are in construction, which just isn't surprising at all, given the housing bust that we're having. We also see really bad job losses in manufacturing, auto companies, and other things.

But we see losses in hotels. We see losses in retail. I mean, we're really now seeing losses across the board.

The worst losses are hitting men. They are hitting less-educated workers. And they are hitting people in both manufacturing centers and in places that had a housing bubble, like California, like Nevada, like Florida.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So geographically there is some pattern here?

DAVID LEONHARDT: There is some pattern. There's a band in the middle of the country, the Dakotas, Nebraska, that's doing a little bit better.

But I don't want to overstate that, because those places are also beginning to suffer, as well. Some of their relative health was a result of high oil and commodity prices, and that's going away.

This is very much a nationwide recession. This isn't something like the early '80s, where we have a Rust Belt that is doing much, much worse than other places. Really, it's a nationwide recession.

Men hit worse than women

JUDY WOODRUFF: You just mentioned that men are being hit by this unemployment, spreading unemployment worse than women. Why is that?

DAVID LEONHARDT: It seems to have mostly to do with a shift in industries, so that if we think about things like construction and manufacturing that have been hit hardest, those are pretty heavily male industries.

And if we then think about things that are expanding, I mean, health care has continued to expand throughout this recession. Those are much more female than the things like construction and manufacturing.

And so we are in the midst of this long-term shift that's even affecting cultural things. I actually think it's become more acceptable for men not to work than it used to be. I think in the past men who lost their jobs in the 1950s and '60s would have taken another job almost no matter what.

And now I think often their wives are working, and so they will stay out of the labor force for longer, trying to find a job that might pay as well as their last one, and that affects things, as well as the economic trends.

Payoff of education high

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you also mentioned that there's a difference in what we're seeing -- what you're seeing in white-collar jobs, among workers who are more educated versus blue-collar jobs, workers who might not have a college degree.

DAVID LEONHARDT: This is really tricky, because it's these two opposing thoughts that it's important to keep both of them in mind. So this is a nationwide recession. It is hitting white-collar workers. It is hitting college graduates. But it's hitting blue-collar workers and people who didn't graduate from college harder than it's hitting white-collar workers.

And so while it's true that a college degree doesn't make you immune from this recession, it's also true that the return, the relative return on education has never been higher.

So everyone is suffering. And yet the gap between the pay of college graduates and everyone else recently hit a record high. And so one of the absolute worst things that could come out of this is if somehow young people took the message, well, the economy is so bad it's not even worth it to stay in school and get a degree. The fact is, compared to the alternative, the payoff for an education has never been higher than it is right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They may be discouraged, but they need to step back and look at the bigger picture here?

DAVID LEONHARDT: Yes, and there is precedence for this, which is, in the depression, there was a huge surge of people going to school.

Small raises for employed

JUDY WOODRUFF: Any bright spots at all, looking across all these numbers?

DAVID LEONHARDT: You really have to squint pretty hard to find a bright spot, but I'll mention two. One, job loss, although it was worse in the last few months than we previously know, it is not accelerating, so the economy has basically lost 650,000 jobs essentially each of the last three months, so we can hope that this is the worst that it gets. We don't know, but we can hope.

The second thing is people who still have jobs, amazingly enough, continue to get small raises, 2 percent a year. And because inflation is roughly zero now, that means the buying power of people who keep their jobs is actually going up, which, given what's happening to their retirement accounts and given how many people are losing jobs, is one very small, but worth mentioning piece of good news.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So if you can hang on to your job, you have some chance, you're saying...

DAVID LEONHARDT: For the time being.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... for now.

DAVID LEONHARDT: For now. And, again, I fully recognize that those same people who are getting 2 percent raises after inflation also have seen the value of their 401(k) drop in half. So I don't want to overstate the importance of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Different ways of measuring.


JUDY WOODRUFF: David Leonhardt, the New York Times, thank you again.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Appreciate it, even with all this bad news.