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Tomgram: Jill Fraser, A Farewell to Jobs
Wednesday, 04 March 2009 22:00
by Tom Engelhardt

Back in December, I wrote about the layoffs — what a polite word for a terrible act — then coursing through book publishing, my own business of more than 30 years. "When you get the word," I commented, "the call, the notice that you're a goner, or when your little world shudders, that's something else again. Even if the call's not for you, but for a friend, an acquaintance, someone close enough so you can feel the ripples, that can do the trick." —

I had, by then, felt those ripples when Colin Robinson, an editor I admire, a Brit working for a large New York house, was axed. At the time, I wrote about his firing without using his name, but he's since written his own account of how he was tossed out (and what's happening to publishing) in the London Review of Books. "I'd hardly settled behind my desk," he begins, "when one of my bosses asked if I would join her in the corner office. 'Please close the door,' she said as I entered the room. Seldom a good sign. 'Why don't you take the comfortable chair?' Oh dear.") —

Oh dear, indeed. He was gone the next day — and what was his boss's last comment to him about book publishing? "She said that two words sprung to mind: General Motors." Indeed again. In fact, too much of American life has a GM look to it these days. Take journalism. Newspapers? Get your money out while you can. Last week, the Rocky Mountain News, almost a century and a half old, died ignominiously, as in the near future may the Seattle Post Intelligencer, the San Francisco Chronicle and other endangered species of papers. Last week as well, the Philadelphia Inquirer went into bankruptcy, just one of 33 U.S. daily newspapers whose parent companies have recently filed for it; and that's without even mentioning the rest of our papers radically cutting costs and staffs, hocking assets, or sinking into debt. If you needed one more hint about the way the wind was blowing, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post reported that, "on Friday, the American Society of Newspaper Editors canceled its convention, saying too many members planned to stay home." —

I still read two papers a day in print, but no matter. I'm 64 years old, almost as superannuated as the papers I read. This year it seems all but certain that at least one, if not more, major cities in this country will lack a newspaper.

Recently, a close friend of mine in publishing was whacked. Ten years at his job, 24 hours out the door. It does take your breath away. Or mine at least. And Jill Fraser's as well. It's as if you're watching the tightening gyres of some bird of prey circling in for the kill. But, as Fraser indicates below, not every American is quite so out of breath, not if we're to believe the latest opinion polls. Author of White-Collar Sweatshop: The Deterioration of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate America, Fraser is a new TomDispatch author; she also runs a website, EconoWhiner.com, that couldn't be more of this moment or better poised to cover our bad times, macro to micro. A longtime financial journalist, she has taken up the post of "whiner-in-chief" at her site, which is addictive. I'm hooked. You will be, too. Check it out. And while you're at it, to catch a TomDispatch audio interview in which Fraser discusses why a sizeable minority of Americans seem immunized to the idea that anything bad could happen to them, click here. Tom

What, Me Worry?

Making Sense of Polling on Job Insecurity
By Jill Andresky Fraser

According to a recently released AP-GfK poll, 32% of Americans are crazy.

 

Oh, sorry. The poll actually revealed that 47% of those asked worry "a lot" or "some" about the possibility of losing their jobs. True, that's nearly twice as many as the same poll detected in February 2008, when only 28% of Americans polled raised their hands and acknowledged anxiety.
 


More noteworthy, though, and much more difficult to explain, is this conundrum: If the AP-GfK poll is to be trusted, almost one-third of all Americans say that they are worried about losing their jobs "not much" or "not at all."

Let's think about what this means. The current official U.S. unemployment rate of 7.6% (up from 7.2% just one month earlier) doesn't faze this optimistic bunch; nor, we might assume, would the news that the real unemployment rate is probably closer to 14%, if you include all those people who are involuntarily underemployed because part-time jobs are the only ones they can find. (The most realistic unemployment figure is undoubtedly higher still, if you include all the previously "self-employed" people whose income has dried up along with the economy.)

Yet even sticking to that 7.6% figure, there are still 4.1 million more people out of work now than 12 months ago. Evidently, that doesn't faze this self-confident group either. Sixty-five percent of survey respondents reported that a friend had lost a job thanks to the cratering economy in the past six months. Twenty-five percent had a family member who had lost a job during this period. It seems that doesn't get to them either… but you get the idea.

An astonishing 32% of those surveyed by AP-GfK are somehow confident that they, at least, are secure in their jobs. (The missing 21% checked off "didn't apply" to the question, including presumably the 10% of those polled who reported already getting the ax during the past six months.) A recent New York Times/CBS News Poll came up with similar findings. In that poll, a marginally larger and so marginally more astonishing 35% of Americans reported themselves not in the least concerned that someone in their household might be out of work in the next 12 months.

Thinking about this optimistic third of Americans, it's hard not to reach one basic conclusion: They're nuts.

Surveying the Layoff Landscape

Polls like these attract respectful attention from the mainstream media. An Associated Press article about the AP-GfK poll, with the typical headline, "Fears over Economy Growing, Poll Says," found its way into newspapers across the country, including the Seattle Times, Sacramento Bee, Washington Times, and Star Tribune of Minneapolis/St. Paul. The article breezed through a batch of fairly predictable findings: lots of people are worried about paying their bills; they're afraid that the value of their stocks and retirement investments will drop; and more than half of poll respondents aren't confident that they will have enough money to live comfortably in retirement.

Yet, for anyone who actually considered the poll, or read between the lines of that widely-reprinted AP article, one question seems too pressing to ignore: How, in the present economic environment, could 32% of Americans fail to grasp that job security no longer exists — not in the U.S., nor elsewhere in the global economy. Today's most salient question isn't, will you lose your job (if you still have one), but when?

No question, it's getting harder and harder to count on a paycheck. That's certainly true for all the people who have spent their work lives in industries now visibly disintegrating around them (which would include automobile manufacturing, journalism, book publishing, and the rest of the media, the retail sector, financial services, construction, and so on). It's hardly less true for countless people living in one of the 40 or so states with significant budget gaps that need to be plugged, states where cutbacks along the lines of California's recent budget cataclysm are just waiting to happen.

Today, few industries and careers can be considered "safe." After all, technology giants like National Semiconductor and Dell have already begun laying people off; so has that symbol-of-all-symbols Microsoft, which recently announced the first major layoff in the company's history. Tiny branches of local libraries are laying people off too, despite the fact that, in many communities, libraries have emerged as communal gathering spots for unemployed people of all ages and at all stages in their careers.

Meanwhile, throughout the global marketplace, mass firings have become an acceptable knee-jerk reaction to whatever bad news comes along. Indeed, the layoff has become the default management mechanism for employers of every shape, size, and financial condition. To take just one prominent example, in its restructuring plan, which General Motors recently submitted to the Treasury Department, the company requested as much as $30 billion in bailout funds while promising, in return, to cut 47,000 employees worldwide. How much more would it cost to save those jobs? Unfortunately, that kind of bailout isn't going to be on anybody's table.

Perhaps AP-GfK should have polled people about whether or not they expected mass layoffs at their places of employment. As defined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a mass layoff occurs whenever at least 50 initial claims for unemployment insurance are filed by the former employees of any single establishment during a five-week period. During December 2008 alone, there were, by those standards, 2,275 mass layoff "events" nationwide, down slightly from November's record high of 2,333. As a point of comparison, there were "just" 1,352 mass layoffs in November 2007 and 1,469 the following month.

More bad news, more layoffs. This pattern has become mind-numbingly predictable, which, perhaps, makes it easier for those non-anxious job-holders to ignore. Or maybe they are just the type of people who deny the possibility that anything really bad could ever happen to them, regardless of what's going on elsewhere.

Layoff announcements tend to happen on Mondays or Fridays. (Good poll question: Do you try to skip the news on Mondays and Fridays?) With this downturn getting worse, it's a likely bet, though, that most days are layoff days someplace or other. So it may well be that those who want to keep denying the realities of job insecurity will need to stop watching or reading the news entirely. Maybe that 32% already has.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also reports on what it calls "extended" mass layoffs, which is what happens when private sector nonfarm employers report that 50 or more employees have remained out of work for at least 31 days. During the fourth quarter of 2008, 3,140 extended mass layoffs left 508,859 people "separated" from their jobs. Not surprisingly, these are the highest numbers since the BLS started recording this data in 1995. The construction and manufacturing sectors hit record highs for extended mass layoffs, and so did eight states: Alaska, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Missouri, New Jersey, and Wyoming.

Living on the Moon

In my admittedly random survey of the universe, the only men and women I can find who seem to feel secure in their jobs are teachers with tenure. Now it's possible that those 32% of survey respondents who believe things are A-OK are on tenured faculties. But if that's so, I think the pollsters should have disclosed it.

Only kidding. In evaluating just how out-of-touch-with-reality that third of AP-Gfk's respondents really are, it would have been interesting to know a little bit about their jobs, employers, and industries. The health-care sector, for example, managed to eke out job growth consistently throughout last year. Yet according to the Bureau, once you turn to other areas of the economy, the so-called hires rate decreased during 2008 in a number of fields, including the durable goods manufacturing sector, as well as nondurable goods manufacturing, the retail trade, the arts, entertainment, and recreation, not to speak of "accommodation and food services," the Federal government, and state and local governments pretty much across the board. That same "hires rate" declined in all four regions of the U.S. in the same period, with the largest declines in the South. (Possible poll question: Do you live on the moon?)

Here's something else I don't understand about that recent poll or coverage of it: Rational people tend to feel greater levels of job insecurity the more they read about layoffs and experience job loss around them. In total, there were 7,818 extended mass layoffs during 2008. Factors like declining demand for business goods and services, contract cancellations, and excess inventory accounted for 44% of those layoffs. And those same factors aren't going away anytime soon. Most people sense that. At least I think they do.

Consider James Johnson, who recently emailed this note to my website, EconoWhiner.com (all names have been changed to protect confidentiality): "I called a contact at one of our client's offices only to be told that she had been laid off last week," James reported. And that was just the beginning. "I headed into a meeting with another client and right before that meeting began, they called one of my colleagues, my best friend at the office, into a side meeting where they fired him — part of a large bank layoff. It was the closest this has come to me losing my job and I felt that the Depression had hit."

It's a pretty good bet that James, although still employed, would be one of those people reporting at least some work anxiety. Who wouldn't? As a longtime journalist, married to a longtime editor, living on the same island as Wall Street, it's fair to say we have so many friends who are out of work that actually having a job is coming to seem odd. I can practically count on one hand the families I know in which both spouses seem "safely" employed.

Denial as a Job Strategy

In a global job market that seems to offer few safe havens, I'd go so far as to argue that most rational people are scared witless. Many working and nonworking people don't have a clue about what to do next. If they're still employed, they're knocking on wood. Maybe that's one reason at least some of those 32% claimed not to be anxious — they were superstitious and didn't want to jinx themselves. For other people, there may well be a sense of "why bother?" Why acknowledge job anxieties when you're only going to feel more stymied or confused as a result? After all, it's not as though there are obvious ways to plan or redirect your career path in a world that seems to be increasingly full of job dead ends. Then again, for at least some within this large group, "ignorance is bliss" may feel more like a career strategy than a cliché.

Yet, mustering all the possible explanations I can conjure up, I still don't get it. I still can't quite understand how anyone, let alone one-third of all Americans, could deny the realities of our ever-more precarious workplace. Listen to Annette Miller, who recently told EconoWhiner: —

"I have retrained several times, relocated many times, and always survived, at least until now. This time it really is different, and I think that everyone can sense that. It feels like there are no actual jobs at the end of the Monster.com, Twitter, and Facebook rainbow — it's really all one big support group. No one gets to go to a regular place every day where they get paid on a regular basis. But everyone pretends anyway, because what's the alternative to this ceaseless networking? Sitting at home rewriting your resume one more time?"
How about a poll question that asks, "If you lose your job, do you expect to be out of work for a relatively short or a relatively long time?" After all, long-term unemployment, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics officially defines as being jobless for 27 weeks or more, has doubled in the past 12 months. Back in January 2008, 1.3 million people fell into this category. In January 2009, the number was 2.6 million.

Here's how Gene Dawson recently described the situation in a comment to EconoWhiner:
"I have been out of work (and getting by with freelancing, but that well is soon running dry) for 17 months. 'I couldn't get arrested' pretty much describes my life for the past year, after working hard for 15 years in an industry in which I was known for my extensive network, quality work, and integrity. Whatever."
Another promising poll question: If you lose your job and are out of work for a long period of time, will that be because of your lack of skills or the absence of job possibilities? After all, on the last business day of 2008, there were just 2.7 million job openings in the United States, bringing the job-openings rate to 1.9% — the lowest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started monitoring this eight years ago.

What's it like to be looking for a job when there essentially aren't any? Roberta Higgins caught the mood of the moment in this way:
"I was laid off in May 2008 from a job I was sure I would have until I retired. So now I spend my days sending my resume into the black hole of the Internet, not sure if it even reached its destination. I was completely overwhelmed when I actually received a letter in the mail from an organization that informed me I did not get the job I had applied for but was more than welcome to reapply if another opening came available. I keep it in a special place so that when I feel totally disconnected from the outside world I can take it out and read it."
How close are we all to this work-related abyss?

One important lesson that a poll like this one has to offer is, quite simply, that polls can only tell us so much. And sometimes, it's not really very much at all. After all, if it's true that we can't dream about our own deaths, maybe we can't contemplate a world in which the skills that we've learned, the jobs that we've worked at, the employers who have hired us, and the industries that we've taken for granted are disappearing all around us. Maybe that one-third of Americans are simply in denial. Maybe the real story is, why aren't more of us?

Jill Andresky Fraser is the creator of, and "Whiner-in-Chief" at, EconoWhiner.com, a website where people share their experiences, emotions, strategies, and attitudes about life during the economic downturn. A longtime financial journalist, she is the author of White-Collar Sweatshop: The Deterioration of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate America. To catch a TomDispatch audio interview in which Fraser discusses why a sizeable minority of Americans seems immunized to the idea that anything bad could happen to them, click here.
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