False Positives

Mysteries of Employment

We tend to assume the opposite of a negative is a positive. The opposite of unemployment, for example, is employment. The rates of unemployment and employment should mirror each other, one goes down when the other goes up. But it turns out the relationship between the two is more peculiar than that.

According to a reporter for The New York Times who looked into the problem of unemployment for young men: “The basic facts are on display in the official government reports on the labor market. More [unemployed] young men are describing themselves as students; more older men are describing themselves as disabled or retired.” They slip away into other categories and disappear.

“The big surprise, however, was hearing so many men say they were out of work, in part, because there were jobs they would not take.” According to Lawrence F. Katz, a professor of economics at Harvard, “They are unhappy to be out of work and eager to find new jobs. They are struggling both with the loss of income and a loss of dignity. Their mental and physical health is suffering. Yet 44 percent of men in the survey said there were jobs in their area they could get but were not willing to take.”

The Times’s reporter quoted Philippe Bourgois, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania: “When the legal, entry-level economy isn’t providing a wage that allows someone a convincing and realistic option to become an adult — to go out and get married and form a household — it demoralizes them and shunts them into illegal economies . . . . It’s not a choice that has made them happy.”

“The long-run effects of this are very high,” said Professor Katz. “We could be losing the next generation of kids.”

It is no surprise that life without work is not easy. “In follow-up interviews,” according to The Times’ reporter, “about two dozen men described days spent mostly at home, chewing through dwindling resources, relying on friends, strangers and the federal government. The poll found that 30 percent had used food stamps, while 33 percent said they had taken food from a nonprofit or religious group.”

The point we have more difficulty computing is that sometimes employment can feel worse. Some jobs are available, but there are painful emotional dilemmas associated with taking them.

One dilemma, pointed out by the anthropologist, is that lower income means they cannot fulfill their obligations to support their families in those jobs. Related to that is the loss of status, the injury to pride and self-esteem associated with jobs for which they are overqualified. But even worse can be the loss of identity. One electrician commented that “Somebody asks you ‘What do you do?’ and I would say, ‘I’m an electrician.’ But now I say nothing. I’m not an electrician anymore.”

The bigger picture is that “Working, in America, is in decline.” The Times noted: “The share of prime-age men — those 25 to 54 years old — who are not working has more than tripled since the late 1960s.”

But the individual stories of humiliation, demoralization and disappointment are heart-breaking – and that may be one reason why the news is cast into the shade. We would rather not know.