Underemployment: The New Reality

Help wanted, unemployed, underemployed, ready for workLast week I wrote a post, “Not All Jobs Are Created Equal,” responding to a Wall Street Journal article about why not all jobs are the same. My point was that it doesn’t constitute “job growth” or create new jobs when people who are running out of unemployment benefits take a survival job as @WSJ claimed. I also posted a comment about the article on the Journal’s web site.

The comments I received from other readers regarding my view of underemployment were very interesting.

  • TC: “oh please, the people who were living off the dole are not “career” types, unless you call a “career” being on welfare / SNAP etc.”
  • TM: “Nice straw man argument. All the jobs created or filled in the last year have not been minimum wage filled by desperate people. I will agree that underemployment is a problem, but my company and several others I know of, have CREATED new jobs because we needed the people and had the work that needed doing – and these are well-paid jobs requiring skills.”
  • GC: “While the job may not be equal to what they had, they have returned to working. It then falls to the individual to take responsibility and improve their lot. If you doubt this, then please explain why Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Carnegie and millions of other people who were at the “bottom rung” have climbed their way to success?
    We have choices in life and in this country, at least currently; we are not assigned a career. I suggest you stop and think for a change and use reason and understand the some of the virtues of liberty and responsibility.”
  • RB: “Gee, you never noticed that companies are more likely to hire a person working in any job before they will hire someone on unemployment. There is nothing in the law that prohibits discriminating against the unemployed. Also, the longer you are unemployed, there greater chance there is that you have lost marketable job skills.”

A Life of Ease?

These men, like the Journal’s editors, seem to believe that people who are collecting unemployment benefits are basically freeloaders who prefer living a life of ease on government handouts to going back to work. I directed them to read my 2103 post on “Movement is Life,” which recommends that the long-term unemployed take a job—any job—to stay busy, engaged, and optimistic.

Hank Greenberg, cartoon, underemployment, the new jobs

Still, I find the idea that people prefer vegetating on “the dole” astonishing for two reasons:

  1. Most people that I know and have encountered in my career want to work. They want to have a place to go in the morning where they can do a meaningful job and earn a salary commensurate with their efforts. They want to feel like real, valuable people again. And they want to get there as quickly as possible after losing their previous job.
  2. Anyone who thinks that unemployment benefits allow you to live a life of ease and comfort has never collected them. The amount most people receive weekly is enough to pay only a few small bills and buy groceries. It doesn’t come close to what a professional person makes in salary—or to paying the bills incurred when that salary was coming in dependably every month. And that’s before taxes. Unemployment benefits are taxed either on a weekly basis or at the end of the year. If you want to continue your health insurance, COBRA is very expensive—more than most families can afford. Benefits don’t come close to covering that alone for a family of four. Fortunately, the Affordable Care Act now provides a more reasonable alternative.

Granted, some news networks and blowhard commentators spread this sick idea that millions of Americans are just too lazy to work. People who watch Fox News and listen to the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh can get themselves all worked up about how they are supporting this underclass of indolent people.This can be a real temptation for people who have never been laid off or had their company fold under them, If such drones exist, however, it’s not among the people I know and have encountered here in Massachusetts.

Working Outside the Box

The second part of their comments denied that unemployed people take jobs that were far below what their educations, careers, experience, and skills qualified them to do. One man demanded that I provide sources for my statement. Fair enough.

Here are some real-life examples of people I know personally:

  • A friend who used to run marketing at her tech company and now sells clothing at a retail store.
  • A friend who was in charge of investor relations, working with Wall Street analysts, and now sells artisanal oils and vinegars at a retail store.
  • Multiple colleagues who once worked in high-tech product management and now teach high school math and science.
  • A friend who was director of training for a publicly traded tech company and now works as a consultant teaching a specific project management software platform.
  • Two friends who were marketing and sales professional and now are fortunate enough to hold part-time marketing jobs.
  • Many friends who once had full-time jobs in major corporations and now have their own “consulting” companies—which means struggling to find part-time work—in their area of expertise.
  • One contact who ran trade shows for a tech company and now sells real estate and another who works the front desk at a health club.

A big difficulty is age discrimination. The cult of youth is in full swing, especially in the technology industry. The assumption is that young people “get it” while anyone over 50 (or even close to it) is an old fogey who can’t learn anything new. If you’re unemployed, over 50, and have been out of a job for a long time, finding work in your career is unlikely to happen. If you work in the high tech industry, it’s almost impossible.

Be Flexible, People

The people who have done best at finding gainful employment are the most flexible people. They have recognized the reality that they are unlikely to find the same kind of work, at the same level, earning the same salary as they did before. Teaching school is a whole new career. It’s gainful, respectable work that benefits the entire community but it doesn’t typically pay the kind of six-figure salaries these new teachers were making in their former career. One friend has been elected a state representative. Again, this is a new career that came from thinking way outside the box.

age discrimination, sunglasses, bifocals

Cutting off unemployment benefits indeed created an incentive for people who are out of work to take an available job. But that doesn’t mean the newly employed will be contributing at the same level, earning at the same level, or making use of education and experience at the same level as they were before.

If the goal of this “natural experiment” is to get people off of unemployment and back into the work force, well, it’s working. But let’s not kid ourselves about the reality for the underemployed–or set ourselves up in judgement of people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own and now can’t find another one.