As I write this, the U.S. stock market has plunged downward for seven straight days. Just two days after dropping below 10,000 for the first time in four years, the Dow dropped below 9,000 for the first time in five years. That’s a 39% slide from its historic high of 14,000, set only a year ago… and there’s no clear bottom in sight.
Meanwhile, the bailout plan passed by Congress is so far failing to have any calming effect whatsoever, as the solvency crisis spreads around the world. Paulson is now talking about immediate capital injections, as I wrote earlier that most economists had been advising all along, and commentators are grateful that Congress (quietly) slipped authorization for that into the bill.
In a nutshell, people are in a panic. CNN reports this week that
Nearly six out of ten Americans believe another economic depression is likely, according to a poll released Monday.
The CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, which surveyed more than 1,000 Americans over the weekend, cited common measures of the economic pain of the 1930s:
- 25% unemployment rate;
- widespread bank failures; and
- millions of Americans homeless and unable to feed their families.
In response, 21% of those polled say that a depression is very likely and another 38% say it is somewhat likely.
Note: that’s depression, not recession. CNN goes on to cite economists insisting (as they have been for years now, throughout the credit bubble and then its deflation) that things aren’t as bad as people think. Still, at this point even the optimists are saying we might rebound by late next year… while others—e.g., Nouriel “Dr. Doom” Roubini, who has been painfully accurate in his assessment of this situation for months now—warn that “one cannot rule out a systemic collapse and a global depression.” And while on the one hand there’s the promise of a new administration with a wiser economic policy coming in soon, on the other hand we still have to weather the transition period. The next four months could feel very long indeed.
It’s hard to avoid picking up a sense of detachment, though, from those who talk and write about these things. Mass-media journalists, professional economists, policymakers… these people can tell us what’s happening, but most of them are insulated from the pain they describe. They’re highly paid professionals with secure jobs. At worst, they’re watching their retirement portfolios decrease (like everyone else)—but that’s not the same as watching your paycheck and health insurance disappear… or your home… or your child’s college education.
The real gut-level impact of all of this is in the employment numbers. As has been widely covered, the U.S. lost 159,000 jobs in September—the ninth month of losses in a row, making 700,000+ this year to date, and the worst month in over five years. And don’t forget, that’s not counting against a zero line—the economy needs to add 150,000 jobs a month just to keep pace with an expanding workforce. What that means is that in just nine months, we’ve fallen roughly two million jobs short of what people actually need. Official unemployment is still “low” at 6.1 percent, but the BLS’s less-reported U-6 number (including “discouraged” and “underemployed” workers) is at roughly 11 percent. And that’s before the effects of Wall Street’s recent turmoil hits the statistics.
How It Hits Home
On a personal level, I have to admit that I’m finding all this very stressful and unsettling. There’s no way it could be otherwise… since I’ve been unemployed for nearly a year and a half now, and the job market certainly isn’t getting any better as I continue to hunt.
Make no mistake: at no point during that period has the job market been anything close to “good.” Since leaving my last job, I’ve applied for over 130 other positions. I’ve been to no less than 42 interviews, including some seconds and a couple of thirds, some of which went extremely well. But no offers have been forthcoming. (The sole exception came courtesy of a friend and former colleague—a generous offer, but it would have involved working for a huge and rigidly bureaucratic organization, in a mind-numbingly tedious job that bore no relation to either my interests or my experience. Going down that road would have been unwise for both me and the employer.)
In my case the number 42 clearly does not carry the answer to life, the universe and everything.
Now, let’s keep in mind (I certainly try) that I’m not some marginally employable schlub here. On the contrary:
- I’m in the nonprofit sector, which is famous for its “intangible rewards,” so we shouldn’t be talking about hordes of competitors trying to climb a career ladder in pursuit of high salaries and generous benefits.
- I have undergraduate and graduate degrees from top-rank schools, and the intelligence to back them up.
- I have years of experience in almost every aspect of the field, from fundraising to finance to advocacy to communications. I’m good at what I do.
- Not to pat myself on the back, but my writing, in particular, has been singled out for praise. I have a variety of short and effective writing samples available. I also send out carefully customized, targeted cover letters.
- I’ve carefully honed and polished my résumé, and had it professionally reviewed, and made revisions as advised.
- I have contacted all my professional associates by phone or e-mail or in person, attended networking events, sought and received referrals and recommendations, set up a LinkedIn profile, posted on job-search sites, talked to recruiters and placement agencies, and basically spread the word by every means possible.
- I’ve carefully chosen (and checked) my references, and they’re uniformly positive.
- I scour nonprofit job-listing sites regularly, and research postings carefully before applying.
- I have read multiple books and articles on interviewing technique, prepared countless carefully phrased questions and answers, done practice interviews, and even paid for professional coaching.
- I dress well, have a firm handshake, look people in the eye, have a full head of hair, and am reasonably attractive and in good shape.
- I send out prompt, courteous thank-you notes.
- Although in a just world it shouldn’t really matter, I am a straight while male who is neither especially young nor especially old.
- English is my native language, and I’m very articulate in it.
Despite all of that, I have—to put it in economic terms—productive capacity that is going woefully unutilized. And no one seems willing to give me a chance to show how well I can utilize it. There have been, and remain, just too many talented people out there competing for too few jobs.
It is, unavoidably, very frustrating and discouraging. I’ve had long job searches before—and I hate the whole process, as I’m sure most people do—but never like this. After a while, you can’t avoid starting to doubt yourself… you think you’ve done everything right, but perhaps you have some fatal flaw that no one’s told you about. I’m sure that one day I’ll be able to look back on this with more perspective, but… no, scratch that. I hope I’ll be able to. Some days, though, it seems just as likely that I’ll fall through life’s cracks and wind up mired in permanent depression and destitution, subsisting on junk food, cheap alcohol, and pity.
I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to my girlfriend, who has been persistently supportive, loving, and encouraging. I don’t know how I would have made it through this so far without her.
In the meantime, I keep plugging away, and I try to cope by using my time in other ways. I’ve done some freelance work. I’ve updated my web design skills. I’ve caught up with some old friends. I’ve done a lot of reading. I’m taking a class. I’ve started this blog.
And I remind myself things could certainly be a lot worse. I’m fortunate to be in good health. I’m in a city I love. I don’t drive much, so gasoline isn’t a big problem. I’ve long made a practice of living below my means, so I’m not buried in consumer debt, and I wasn’t without savings to fall back on. My girlfriend remains gainfully employed and, as I said, supportive. So while frugality has become important, and I’ve certainly deferred major purchases and cut back on not a few minor ones, my back isn’t entirely against the wall. Yet.
Still, you just get godawful sick of doing interviews after a while, much less of sending out job inquiries. (Unlike a few years ago, a lot of places don’t even bother to get back to you these days.) You feel like you’re up against a void of sheer apathy. Disdain, even.
So that’s why it’s personally nerve-wracking to see the economy spiraling downward as it’s doing… and it’s cold comfort indeed to know that millions of other perfectly capable people are in the same boat I’m in, or even worse. For one thing, I wouldn’t wish this situation on anybody. For another, far from being able to help each other, the downturn only means there are yet more of us competing against each other for what jobs still remain.
Oh, and in the midst of it all, the price of basic groceries has gone up 10.5% in the last year. Hooray.
So I can understand why people are feeling panic creeping up on them, even if “experts” warn against it. Some days I’m astonished I find the inner resources to remain as calm as I do.
Let us all wish for better times ahead, sooner rather than later.Tags: Chris Miller, economy, financial crisis, inflation, unemployment