TOPICS > Economy

For Singles, Job Losses Hit Twice as Hard

BY Jason M. Breslow  December 4, 2009 at 11:00 AM EDT

Job seekers at a career fair in Los Angeles, California (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

It’s been nearly a year since Jane Acosta was let go from her job, and almost as long since her last good date. She admittedly thinks far more about her prospects in the job market than those on the dating scene.

She has sent out resumes, and even gone on several interviews. Still, since losing her job in January as an office assistant at a New Jersey food distributor, she says she feels increasingly “stuck.”

“You just get so disillusioned that no one is calling you back,” she says. “You’re like, now what do I do?”

For singles such as Acosta, the recession that began in December 2007 has been especially painful. As an October study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis has found, from the start of the downturn through the first half of 2009, employment of single adults fell at more than twice the rate as it did for married adults. Over that time span, employment among married people fell 2.6 percent compared to a 5.7 percent drop among singles.

“Single people get absolutely hammered every recession and this one is no different,” says Howard J. Wall, a vice president and economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and author of the report.

The Fed report found a 5.3 percent slide in married employment compared to an 8.7 percent plunge for singles, after factoring in the number of jobs that would have been created had there been no recession. For singles, that’s a steeper loss than in each of the previous five recessions.

The good news for singles is that their unemployment rate fell to 13.1 percent in November, from 13.4 percent a month earlier, according to Labor Department numbers released Friday. The bad news: That’s still far higher than the 6.3 percent unemployment rate for married adults in November, and an overall jobless rate of 10 percent.

Part of the reason for the differences in joblessness between the two groups is that married people typically have more financial obligations than singles, and thus are often more willing to take a new job at lower pay, says Stephen Fuller, an economist and director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.

“An unemployed married person may have children,” Fuller says, “and so an unemployed married person may be willing to take a job to get some money coming in that a single person might not.”

Moreover, Wall points out, when a married man loses his job, his wife will often get a job to supplement the family income, cancelling out the effect of her husband’s layoff on the married unemployment rate. He calls it “the added-worker effect,” and it’s part of the reason why the number of women in the workforce, either working or seeking employment, has actually risen during the recession.

Of course, there are other factors that help explain why singles fare worse during recessions, and hardly any have anything to do with marriage itself, Wall explains. Rather, “It’s more the characteristics that single people versus married people bring to employers that make a difference,” he says.

One of the biggest differences is education. Married people 25-years-old and over are twice as likely to hold a bachelors degree as someone who is unwed, according to 2008 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. They are also two-and-a-half times more likely to hold a masters degree.

Age is another factor since the younger a person is the more they lack the experience employers look for in a job candidate.

Younger workers are “just more likely to be unemployed because you’re just getting your foot established in the job market,” says Gary Burtless, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. And when there is a layoff, he adds, it’s often the last people who are hired who are the first to be let go.

Isa Lopez, 26, believes it is her relative inexperience that has left her struggling to find a job since being laid off in January from the jewelry division of a Pennsylvania department store.

“I didn’t get to experience any other areas of the company, so I think at this point it’s the lack of experience that hurts me,” Lopez says. “Especially when you are competing with people out there that have more years of experience and probably are willing to take a pay cut to get a job.”

Since the layoff, Lopez has worked off and on, but nothing permanent has emerged. She has also moved back in with her parents. The upside is that she is able to save money again. But living at home can make dating tough, she says, because when parents are around, “it’s kind of cramped.”

The recession’s impact on less experienced workers only heightened in July, when a hike in the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour from $6.55 pushed employers to be all the more selective. A month after the increase, the national unemployment rate reached 9.7 percent, with a 13.5 percent rate among singles.

“If you have to pay a dollar more an hour, then you have to find workers that are worth it, and people who don’t have any experience are less likely to be worth that higher wage,” Wall says.

All of which is to say that marriage is no safeguard from joblessness.

“The last thing I’d want to do is to advise someone to go get married in order to have a better chance at a job,” jokes Wall. “It’s just not worth it.”