Jobs and the Middle Class

The following is an excellent excerpt from the book “LOSING OUR WAY: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America” by Bob Herbert from Chapter 3 “Jobs and the Middle Class” on page 51 and I quote: “Executives argued that downsizing—getting rid of all those workers—was essential, a business imperative that resulted from increased global competition. But the truth is that employers had discovered a gold mine in downsizing. Workers came to be seen less and less as valuable, functioning human beings contributing to the success of an enterprise and more and more as impediments to profits. They were tossed aside as easily as used tissues. Louis Uchitelle of the New York Times titled his book about the consequences of mass layoffs The Disposable American. He wrote that in the two decades from 1984 to 2004, the Bureau of Labor Statistics “counted at least 30 million full-time workers who had been permanently separated from their jobs and their paychecks against their wishes.” Millions more “had been forced into early retirement or had suffered some other form of disguised layoff, masking the magnitude of the problem”
Self-absorbed corporate tough guys like “Neutron Jack” Welch at GE and “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap of Scott Paper and Sunbeam seemed to glory in the brutal process of casting workers into the netherworld of unemployment. Welch sacked more than 100,000 GE workers in the 1980s and ’90s. Dunlap, who also dispatched workers by the thousands, reveled in his reputation as a heartless cutthroat. “If you want to be liked,” he said, “get a dog.”
The employment debacle was especially poignant for older workers, men and women over fifty. While that group endured somewhat fewer layoffs during the recession, the ones who did lose their jobs—before, during, and after the downturn—found it harder than anyone else to get back to work. In most cases they had been employed for decades, often at one company. They had raised (or were still raising) families and, typically, enjoyed a middle-class or upper-middle-class standard of living. The shock of suddenly being dumped from the workforce like so much trash was profound. In his book Working Scared (or Not at All), Carl Van Horn, director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, wrote, “A staggering number of the unemployed over-age-fifty group that we tracked from 2009 to 2011 had been jobless a very long time. Eighty percent had been searching for over a year, including almost half who had been job hunting almost two years.”
In many cases, older workers who lost their jobs faced nothing short of ruin. Desperate to feed themselves and their families, they often scrambled for low-wage work that had once been the purview of high school dropouts—bagging or delivering groceries, for example. Even those jobs proved hard to come by. One of the workers interviewed by the Heldrich Center said, “Being unemployed is frustrating, demeaning, and, at this point, frightening. Articles in the paper say we ‘baby boomers’ will have to work for a few more years . . . Now, you tell me how I can work for a few more years if I can’t even get a job interview.” Another said, “I’ve always worked so this is very depressing. At age sixty, I never believed I would be unemployed unless I chose to be.”
Most older workers who were pushed out of good jobs would never again find employment with comparable pay and benefits. With so many people chasing so few jobs, younger, cheaper applicants were favored overwhelmingly. “It’s heartbreaking,” said Nadya Fouad, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “The older workers in this new job market try to cobble together whatever pieces they can. Some may be working several part-time jobs, and it’s up to them to figure out how to provide their own benefits. Economically, it’s a huge hit.”
For a considerable segment of older workers, the loss of a job meant not just a fall to much lower-paying work but an abrupt and crushing end to their work lives altogether. Slowly, as one jobless year bled into the next, these middle-aged men and women would come to the realization that they would never work again. A fifty-seven-year-old man who had worked for more than thirty years at a job on the East Side of Manhattan, eventually becoming a highly paid marketing executive on Long Island. “It’s over,” he told me. “I’ve been looking for work for three years. Savings gone. House about to go. Three years I’ve been putting on a shirt and tie, trying to convince myself that somebody needed the talent I have to offer, that I could help them and they would pay me. It’s not going to happen.” There were tears in his eyes. “I’m an embarrassment to my family,” he said.
The psychological impact of a job loss can be devastating for people of any age. “You’re in a high state of anxiety all the time,” said Russ Meyer, the advertising copywriter from Portland, Oregon, who spent more than two years trying to find steady work. ‘You don’t know where your money is going to come from or what’s going to be taken away from you—your home, your car. And if you look for a job for two years and can’t find one, you really start to wonder what’s wrong with you. There’s no way to escape the guilt of not being able to provide for your family—in my case, for my wife and my son. All these dreadful feelings are with you twenty-four hours a day.”
The dreadful feelings speak to the fundamental importance of work for most Americans. Study after study has shown that a job is much more than a paycheck. Take away a job and you weaken the pillars of most workers’ emotional and psychological well-being. Professor David Blustein of Boston College was among a number of scholars who have demonstrated that in addition to providing the essential economic support for most individuals and families, employment plays a central role in the development and maintenance of a workers’ psychic health.
Men and women work to survive, yes, but unemployment is also the soil from which the seeds of self-determination grow. Blustein, a psychologist and the author of the book The Psychology of Working, spend more than twenty years studying the ways in which work provides meaning and structure for people’s lives. He noted that decent jobs give people an opportunity to make better choices about their lives. Employment can also swing open the doors to wider connections with others, both in the workplace and in the world at large. “It’s a crucial source for gratifying fundamental human needs,” said Blustein. “It promotes feelings of self-worth and gives people a sense that they are making a contribution in their community.”
Blustein grew up in New York City and likes to tell students about his mother, who worked for several years in a department store that served a working-class clientele in the borough of Queens. “She was a clerk in the cosmetics department. She would say to me, ‘You know, I may not have a fancy job, but I love going to work, and I know I’m helping people, helping the women feel more attractive, feel better about themselves.’ So for my mom there was a sense that she was contributing, which was really important.”
The absence of work for those who want and need it is toxic in every imaginable way. Anxiety, depression, and severe family problems are common occurrences linked to the economic losses and reduced self-esteem that come with enforced joblessness. Households are often devastated. Intimate personal relationships can crumble, as if hit by a wrecking ball. Child abuse, spousal abuse, and marital breakups all tend to rise in periods of high unemployment. Parental joblessness is especially harmful for children. “You try to hide it from them, shield the little ones, but they know what’s going on,” said a mother of three from Columbus, Ohio, who was fired from her job two weeks after her husband lost his. “The kids know more than parents think. When you’re stressed, they’re stressed.”
The impact on children can be both short-term and long-term. A number of studies have found that children in families hit by unemployment often suffer psychological distress. There can be a heightened tendency to act out, to fight or otherwise misbehave. A study at the University of California, Davis, found that children in families where a head of household had lost a job had a 15 percent higher likelihood of having to repeat a grade in school.
Some of the long-term effects were spelled out by Peter Orszag when he was President Obama’s budget director. “A range of studies,” he noted, “have found that having a parent experience unemployment is significantly associated with whether you graduate from high school, whether you go to college, whether you get a job after college, and how much you get paid in that job.” The hobbling effects of parental unemployment can last the better part of a lifetime. As Orszag pointed out, “The children of workers who were once laid off have lower average wages as adults, even decades later, than those whose parents never experienced such setbacks.”
Not everybody who loses a job is devastated. And plenty of people rebound quickly from a rough employment experience. But overall the damage inflicted by chronic unemployment is vast, and its terrible, often tragic human toll does not get nearly enough attention. Till von Wachter, an economics professor at Columbia University, has intensively studied the effects of unemployment on workers who lost their jobs in mass layoffs, especially during recessions. In addition to finding that such workers seldom recovered fully form their financial reversals, von Wachter and a colleague, Daniel Sullivan, the director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, documented a chilling mortality effect. The death rates of the high-seniority male workers they studied had spiked significantly after they were laid off.
“Our estimates,” von Wachter and Sullivan wrote, “suggest a 50 percent to 100 percent increase in the mortality hazard during the years immediately following job loss.” They found that even twenty years after the job losses, the death rates for the workers were 10 percent to 15 percent higher than would otherwise have been expected.
“We knew that those men had had a very hard time recovering in the labor market, with very large earnings losses that looked like they were going to be persistent,” von Wachter told me. “It turns out they had an increase in mortality rates as well that was particularly large in the immediate aftermath of the layoff. It probably wasn’t that surprising that you would see heart attacks, drinking, and suicides in the short term. There is a short-term phase where your life is very chaotic. But we then found out that even twenty years later their mortality rate was higher than the mortality pattern of the control group, which suggests that long-term income decline leads to a long-term increase in the mortality rate.”
The suicides mentioned by von Wachter emerged as an increasing problem in the United States over the past several years. As the economy lagged, suicide rates rose, especially among middle-aged men. Suicides typically surge in severe economic downturns, and the Great Recession and its aftermath were no exceptions. Rates were already rising in the years 1999 to 2007. When the recession hit, suicides accelerated. By 2009-2010 the number of Americans committing suicide was approaching forty thousand annually, more than the number being killed in motor vehicle accidents. Most vulnerable were men in their fifties. Their suicide rate surged nearly 50 percent from 2000 to 2012. deciphering the causes of suicide is always difficult, but analysts left little doubt that the strains associated with joblessness were significant contributing factors in the most recent upsurge. The British medical journal the Lancet, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Labor, found that each rise of 1 percent in the jobless rate corresponded to a 1 percent increase in the suicide rate. The percentage increases translated into an estimated fifteen hundred additional deaths from suicide each year.
Something fundamental had gone haywire, and the loss of sufficient employment was at the heart of it. The new normal meant the end of the good times for millions who had thought they were prosperous and secure and a worsening of the bad times for hose at the bottom of the economic heap. The recession eventually eased but the economy never really rebounded. The suffering remained widespread. On one of my visits to Roswell, I met with the leaders of a job-networking ministry at the Roswell United Methodist Church. The program was run by volunteers who told endless stories about the recession-driven onslaught of mostly white-collar men and women in need. “We’re prayed a lot,” said Geoff Wiggins, one of the ministry’s key volunteers. “Stress levels were very high.” Three years after the end of the recession, there was still a tone of amazement in Wiggin’s voice as he talked about what had happened to his community. At one point, during a breakfast of waffles and sausage at a restaurant just off a busy highway, he gestured toward the window and used the analogy of an auto wreck to describe the hard times that continued to bedevil many families: “Your car can get totaled through no fault of your own. You’re driving down the road and something terrible happens. Well, a lot of these guys and gals that come to us have had their jobs and their Careers totaled. This level of distress is new to our community. I’m fifty-eight years old and I’ve never seen anything to compare with it. My neighbors and I had to pitch in to help one family where the sheriff was putting their furniture in the street. That just doesn’t happen in neighborhoods like ours.”

Wiggins laughed when I asked how he’d become so committed to helping the unemployed. “Been there,” he said. “Way back in November 1991, I was a young guy working for a Fortune 500 company—one of the fair-haired boys, youngest corporate director in my division. When I got called into the president’s office, I was so dumb, fat, and happy I thought I was getting either a bonus or a promotion. What I got was a wonderful letter of commendation and a severance package. My boss said, ‘Thanks for your fifteen years of service, you’re a great guy, we wish you well. There’s a security guard in your office, and we need you out of here in an hour.’ That was more than twenty years ago, and it’s still with me. So you can see the impact a job loss can have on a person.”
What’s different now, Wiggins, said, is the vast scale of the joblessness and how tough it has been for people to get back on their feet. “The jobs just aren’t there,” he said. “We recently had a guy show up—he’s fifty-three years old, he’s been unemployed nine or ten months, his home has been repossessed, and he’s in the middle of a divorce. He’s a wreck. So we’re plugging him into our counseling services. In another case, I’ve been meeting one-on-one with a young man in his forties. This guy was making over 300,000 a year. He loses his job, and suddenly that income’s gone. He’s sharing a house with four other guys right now. His wife has divorced him. He’s just not in a good place.
He’s angry and he’s grieving, just as surely as if a loved one had died. This is what unemployment does to people.””

“Jacob Hacker and Paul Person summed the matter up best in their book Winner-Take-all Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class when they wrote, “Step by step and debate by debate, America’s public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefited the few at the expense of the many.”
The relationship between the government and the highly organized big-money interests became so tight, so symbiotic, it was often difficult to distinguish between the two. Key players spun through the revolving door of government employment and fabulously high-paying private sector jobs at dizzying speeds. Robert Rubin, for example, was a veritable whirling dervish. He entered the revolving door, briefcase in hand, as a co-chairman of Goldman Sachs. Then he became Treasury secretary of the United States under Bill Clinton, where he helped deregulate the banking sector and pave the way for manic Wall Street speculation—arguing, among other things, against the regulation of derivatives. Soon he was back out the door and making staggering sums of money, millions on top of millions, at Citigroup, where his strategic advice called for ever more risk taking, ever more speculation. The, even with the economy collapsing in a tragic, world-class recession—the worst since the Depression of the 1930s—Rubin was seeding the Obama administration with his acolytes and proteges: Timothy Geithner, Lawrence Summers, and others. Rubin’s Citigroup collapsed in the derivative-driven economic meltdown and had to be rescued by taxpayers.”


LaVern Isely, Progressive, Overtaxed, Independent Middle Class Taxpayer and Public Citizen and AARP Members


About tim074

I'm a retired dairy farmer that was a member of the National Farmer's Organization (NFO). Before going farming, I spent 4 years in the United States Air Force where I saved up enough money to get my down payment to go farming. I also enjoy writing and reading biographies and I write about myself as well as articles and excerpts I find interesting. I'm specifically interested in finances, particularly in the banking industry because if it wasn't for help from my local Community Bank, I never could have started farming which I was successful at. So, I'm real interested in the Small Business Administration and I know they are the ones creating jobs. I have been a member of Common Cause and am now a member of Public Citizen as well as AARP. I have, in the past, written over 150 articles on the Obama Blog ( and I'd like to tie these two sites together. I'm also on Twitter, MySpace and Facebook and find these outlets terrifically interesting particularly what many of these people did concerning the uprising in the Arab world. I believe this is a smaller world than we think it is and my goal is to try to bring people together to live in peace because management needs labor like labor needs management. Up to now, that hasn't been so easy to find.
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