If you ask around, about one in five Americans (19 percent) will tell you that unemployment is the most important problem facing the United States. According to the same poll, conducted by Gallup in March, 17 percent cite the economy in general as the most important problem — which is a bucket that ostensibly contains the unemployment problem — and 3 percent cite simply a “lack of money,” also presumably a function of employment, be it unemployment, underemployment or wage stagnation.
The moral of the story is that a large number of Americans believe that the U.S. job market is FUBAR. According to a separate Gallup poll, just 28 percent of Americans believe that now is a good time to find a quality job. Granted, this is the highest level seen since the financial crisis, but it’s still dismal. As President Barack Obama put it in his 2014 State of the Union address, ”the best measure of opportunity is access to a good job,” and an economy without opportunity is hardly an economy worth participating in.
The data confirm the sentiment — or the sentiment reflect the data. At 58.8 percent, having crashed and never recovered in the wake of the financial crisis, the employment-to-population ratio is as low as it was in the 1980s. At about 63 percent, the civilian labor force participation rate is where it was in the late 1970s. At $36,733 in 2013, real disposable income per capita is as high as it has ever been, but the growth flatlined that year.
All these bad news bears have weighed on overall economic confidence, which has yet to turn positive — meaning more people are optimistic than pessimistic — since the financial crisis in 2008.
It’s not a competition, but economists have been hung up on which group of people the anemic recovery has been harder for. Is it baby boomers, who were gearing up for retirement right as the crisis hit and ravaged their retirement accounts, destroyed their jobs, and diminished the value of their homes? Is it those who lost their homes in the flood of foreclosures that swept the market? Is it young people, tripping out of college saddled with enormous debt and dismal job prospects?
Everyone has suffered, but the damage that threatens to do the most long-term, systemic economic harm is the damage done to those young people. Failure to launch in the job market can undermine the financial stability and career trajectory of a person for years, decades, or even the rest of his or her life. Unemployment among those 20 to 24 years old was 11.9 percent in February and will likely drift higher as students graduate and flood into an unwelcoming job market.
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“If we look over people’s likely future lives, when you’re part of a generation that comes in with a tough job market and your wages are not so great, you don’t recover,” Richard Freeman, a Harvard University labor economist, told the Star Tribune. “They are going to be at a permanently lower standard of living than they would have been had we either avoided this catastrophe or had we had a successful jobs recovery.”
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