The April unemployment rate dropped slightly, to 8.1 percent. Unfortunately, the decline was due not so much to the creation of new jobs, but to the fact that hundreds of thousands of people just quit looking for work.
Under the government’s approach to calculating the unemployment rate, those people just aren’t counted as unemployed any more. As a result of the continuing decline in the number of people looking for work, the share of Americans who are part of the labor force — either working or actively looking — has reached its lowest point in 30 years. Some of the people who have quit looking for work are early retiring Baby Boomers, but many are people who have just given up hope of finding a job.
There is a tremendous human cost when people give up. They may have started their job search with confidence, sending out resumes and answering want ads and going to job fairs. But, after months without success, grim reality creeps in. They know they have failed, and it embarrasses them. Often, because they are embarrassed, they lash out at family and friends. They limit their horizons, rationalize their failure, and stop dreaming of a better future. They focus, instead, on settling and making do with what they have left. The whole process sucks the air out of their balloon and they face life deflated and defeated.
There’s a reason why many parents won’t allow their kids to quit a sports team or a school activity once they’ve committed to it. That’s because quitting tends to lead to more quitting. Once you’ve stopped trying in one area, and just accepted your reduced status, it becomes progressively easier to quit in other areas, too — whether it is school, or work, or relationships. Quitting is cancerous.
I think this is the hidden, long-term issue we will be dealing with if this recession ever ends. There are people of all age groups who have given up. The younger ones may have moved back in with their parents; the older ones may be slowly spending their savings and trying to hold on. Will those people ever be reinvigorated, given their confidence back, and returned to the point where they dare to dream again?