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Considering Unemployment’s Lingering Social, Emotional Consequences

February 26, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Jeffrey Brown talks to journalist Don Peck about the personal unemployment experience and about the long-term social consequences of joblessness as unemployment remains near 10 percent and economic indicators point to a slow recovery.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: the social consequences of long-term joblessness.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Since the recession began in 2008, more than eight million jobs have been lost. And even as the economy has begun to recover, job growth remains very weak.

We have looked often at the numbers and parsed the latest data. Now a new essay in “The Atlantic” magazine takes a longer view of the social costs of this recession. It’s titled “The Recession’s Long Shadow: How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America.”

The writer is Don Peck, the magazine’s deputy managing editor. And he joins me now.

And welcome to you.

DON PECK, Deputy Managing Editor, “The Atlantic”: It is a pleasure to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to start almost at the conclusion here. You write, “We are living through a slow-motion social catastrophe.”

What were you — what were you — what are you looking at in term — in the longer-term here?

DON PECK: Well, you know, there are kind of two sorts of unemployment.

There’s short-term unemployment, normal, natural unemployment, which the economy always has, and which is necessary to any economy. And then there is long-term, chronic unemployment, which, to a large degree, is what we have got right now.

The — the average duration of unemployment passed six months last fall. That is the longest that has ever been recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics since 1948. And long-term unemployment is really one of the worst things that can happen to anyone.

Psychologically, it’s roughly equivalent to the death of a spouse. And it’s a kind of bereavement in its own right. So, when you have large numbers of people who are suffering from long-term unemployment, it’s — it’s really a plague on them, on their families, and, if it’s widespread enough, on society itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you look at various populations within our society? One clearly would be young people.

DON PECK: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And — and it’s not just — what becomes clear, it is not just what happens now to them, right? But it’s how that plays out over the entirety of their careers.

DON PECK: That’s exactly right.

The first few years in the job market are extremely important to establishing someone’s career track. You know, when I first started reporting for this story, I thought that young people would actually be spared the worst scars of the recession, because they are in and out of the labor market anyway, and — and they don’t typically have that many responsibilities.

But — but all the research shows that that just isn’t true. Lisa Kahn, an economist at Yale, has done work that has indicated that people who come out in recessions, even if they find work immediately, you know, they take large hits to their income immediately, and they never fully catch up with people who came out in better times, even 10, 15, 20 years later.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, it was interesting, because Judy Woodruff just did — took a look at this so-called millennial generation, the kind of people you are talking about. And that is a survey that confirmed what we’re saying, that they are having a hard time getting a first job, but it also suggested that they are quite optimistic, many of them, about their long-term prospects.

But your research or what you are citing suggests perhaps they shouldn’t be in many cases.

DON PECK: Perhaps shouldn’t be. That’s right.

I fear — I fear they shouldn’t be. And the longer this — this recession drags on, this jobs recession drags on, the — the less optimistic they should be. It’s interesting. It’s not surprising to me that — that they would be optimistic now. I encountered a lot of that in my own reporting.

This is a generation that has really been told throughout their childhood that they are special, that they are destined for great things. Self-esteem has been rising steadily in children since the 1980s. And, so — so, they — a lot of people, particularly those that haven’t been out of work for, you know, a year or more, still do believe that things will right themselves.

That optimism is great, as long as it enables them to keep trying, to keep looking for work. But, you know, I think there’s some risk for some people in their 20s, that they think they can just kind of wait the recession out, move back home, wait until things get better, and then expect that their careers will just resume.

Everything we know indicates that that is unlikely to happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then another large part of the population you are looking at would be poor, lower-, middle-income families. And there, it’s how the job situation impacts real — real social structure, a marriage, childbearing, and so on.

DON PECK: That’s right.

You know, William Julius Wilson, the great Harvard sociologist, has looked at inner cities throughout much of his career. And — and what he — what he found is that black inner-city neighborhoods changed radically starting in the ’70s, after male joblessness began to rise.

Manufacturing left the cities. Men had a hard time finding work. And that is really when you started to see the dissolution of families, men turning to illegal activities, to drug use, to drug-selling. Social institutions collapsed.

And, so, for inner cities now, I think there’s a huge risk — and — and we’re already seeing it happening to some — to some degree — that particularly young people, you know, young black men have a 50 percent unemployment rate right now. If they can’t find jobs in the formal sector, they will find jobs in the informal sector.

If they acquire criminal records, even once this recession goes away, they are going to have a hard time kind of getting back into the real economy.

The risk today, though, goes beyond inner cities. This has been called the “mancession.” And three-quarters of all job losses have been to men, particularly blue-collar men. And, you know, I worry that — that — that, over time, persistent male joblessness will have those same sorts of effects in a much wider array of communities.

You are likely to see more divorces, fewer marriages, and — and — and young men turning to — to crime sometimes.

JEFFREY BROWN: There were there was another side. I mean, there were some signs of — of hope that you cite, people talking about being less materialistic, for example, at a time like this.

DON PECK: Right. Absolutely.

Many of the people that I spoke to who were jobless said that, in some ways, the recession had changed them for the better. As you say, they were less materialistic. They had come to value other things, besides money or houses. And, you know, they had come to volunteer more and were enjoying that.

So — so, I think that, to the extent that this weak period helps us kind of reorient ourselves towards family and friendships and the like, that — that might lead to richer lives for everyone.

Also, I — I found that, for adolescents, this — this could actually be, in a strange sort of way, good news. Glen Elder looked at people in their — in their teens during the Great Depression. And what he found was that, particularly for adolescents, the Depression changed them in some healthy ways.

They became more adaptable. They — they became more family-oriented as adults and throughout their adulthood. So, I think maybe that today’s adolescents will be pampered a little bit less and counted on for more because of this recession. And — and that’s a good thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: I would love to end on the good news, but the brunt of this really is that the kind of things we’re reporting on every day, we have to see how it plays out over many years.

DON PECK: We do, of course.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Don Peck of “The Atlantic” magazine, thanks very much.

DON PECK: Thank you, Jeff.