For all the chatter about what’s happening in the underwhelming U.S. job market, the real question involves haves and have-nots and the rising wall between them. Yet a surprising character seems to be on the ascent: the American underdog.
The prevailing storyline describing the new Darwinian economy goes something like this: The rich have got theirs and you can’t have it. The middle class is dying. Young people are screwed, and the whole republic is crumbling like the late Roman Empire. Well, maybe. Prosperity is certainly harder to attain, for now, but there are also signs that America may rejuvenate itself from the bottom up—as it has many times before.
The results of a recent Gallup poll, for instance, challenge some of the conventional gloom about The End of Work in America. Gallup asked people whether they think now is a good time or bad time to find a job, as it has routinely for 15 years. Overall, the outlook is weak: Just 27% said it’s a good time to look for a job, while 70% said it’s a bad time. Still, that’s the most upbeat response since the beginning of 2008. At the economy’s lowest point, in 2009, just 8% said it was a good time to look for a job.
The Determined Underdog
There’s more cause for optimism. The age group most upbeat about jobs is 18-to-29 year olds, with 38% answering “good time.” That shouldn’t be. The unemployment rate among 20-to-24 year olds is 13%, the highest for any age group except teenagers. For those between 25 and 29, it’s 8.5%, which is also far higher than the 7.3% national average.
We’ve also heard repeatedly about a student-debt crisis among recent college grads who can’t get jobs that pay enough to finance payments on $20,000 or $30,000 in debt, or more. Yet young people are the most optimistic about getting jobs even though their prospects seem the weakest.
Maybe that’s because of the naivete of youth. A few more years banging on closed doors might turn those foolish idealists into dour cynics. True, but youthful naivete can be a powerful economic force, because it leads people to attempt high-risk, low-probability things such as starting a business or pursuing a dream career. Most people fail when they try to reach that far, but there’s always a Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey to give others motivation and keep capitalism rolling.
Another surprising finding from the Gallup poll: Hispanics and blacks are more optimistic about jobs than whites. That could be because whites have higher expectations than minorities, and are therefore more easily disappointed. Or it could reflect broader social ennui among a demographic group headed for majority-minority status. Whatever the reason, it's encouraging to see better-than-average optimism among minority groups that typically rank below average by most economic measures.
Men are more upbeat than women, which is also surprising because men have been fading as an economic power while women have been rising. Women now earn the majority of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and they have the good fortune to be overrepresented in recession-resistant industries such as healthcare and education. Men are overrepresented in shrinking industries such as manufacturing and construction, and they’ve been leaving the work force altogether at higher rates than women. Those men who are left, however, seem to feel things are getting appreciably better.
The common thread among these findings is that groups we’d typically consider less advantaged are more optimistic about jobs, while groups that are statistically more advantaged are gloomier. The underdog hasn’t given up, in other words, and may be even be more determined to succeed than the top dog. It’s only one poll, yet the rise of the underdog has been an essential element of American capitalism since the beginning. Maybe it still is.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.