Told in many voices, American workers' story is bleak

Rutgers professor Carl Van Horn says many of the nine million jobs lost in the recession will never return.
Rutgers professor Carl Van Horn says many of the nine million jobs lost in the recession will never return.
Posted: April 02, 2013

The realities are harsh.

Many of the nine million jobs lost in the recession will never return. They are gone to globalization and automation.

The slowly recovering job market is creating work that tends to pay less. The American worker is increasingly disposable, easily cast aside when not needed. Many of the oldest workers, the baby boomers, can't afford to retire. Others have retired unwillingly.

"They've been left beside the road," said Rutgers University public policy professor Carl E. Van Horn, author of a new book, Working Scared (Or Not at All): The Lost Decade, Great Recession, and Restoring the Shattered American Dream.

Van Horn, 63, who heads the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers in New Brunswick, paints a bleak view.

Over the last 15 years, the Heldrich Center has developed a remarkable body of research on the state of work. At the heart of Van Horn's book are interviews conducted between 1998 and 2012 with 25,000 workers of all ages, walks of life, and educational levels.

"We are the cross-section of Americans which used to be middle class," one unemployed worker told Heldrich interviewers. "We want to work. There's not one thing sexy, positive, or pleasant about accepting benefits."

Their angst and pessimism have increased with each round of research, Van Horn said.

"There's not a lot of comfortable people out there," Van Horn said. "I think most Americans are afraid."

New Jersey still has high unemployment - 9.3 percent in February, barely changed from a year ago. Like other states, it has been affected by globalization, corporate reorganizations, and the move away from an industrial economy.

"I think New Jersey is a microcosm of all these things," Van Horn said, noting declines in the pharmaceutical and financial sectors, two bedrocks of Jersey employment.

"The difference is that New Jersey is better positioned to succeed in this kind of volatile economy because it is still a very high income per capita state [and] has great access to world markets and transportation assets."

In this economy, he said, "I'd rather be in New Jersey than Ohio."

Whether in New Jersey, Ohio, or Pennsylvania, it's frightening to consider the future for high school graduates. Three in 10 are jobless. Many college graduates are taking their jobs because the college grads can't find suitable work at their educational level.

College-entry-level jobs, in turn, are being held by baby boomers clinging to the bottom of the ladder just to stay employed.

"I just finished working for UPS as a driver helper," said a young man interviewed in 2011, two years after he graduated from college. "I made $9.50 an hour, sweated for every penny, and was lucky to get 30 hours a week."

Americans who do have jobs are working scared - scared to death that they'll lose them.

Joblessness can lead to hunger, homelessness, ill health, and hopelessness. In its wake is a massive, yet mostly hidden, mental-health crisis as the jobless struggle with depression, exacerbating family tensions, Van Horn wrote.

"Today I have very little hope for my future," wrote an unemployed banker who contacted Van Horn in January 2011.

"One of the most devastating things with becoming unemployed was losing my identity," a 58-year-old woman told interviewers. "I was one thing and then I was nothing."

Many who eventually do land jobs must accept less pay - not enough to repair financial situations that some describe as "totally wrecked."

"The new reality is very unlikely to change," Van Horn said in an interview last week. "Anyone who is nostalgic for the way the employer-employee relationship used to be should forget it."

Or, as an employer quoted in the book said: "We used to think of people we hired as like adopting a member of the family. Now we look at them as someone who's just visiting for a day."

This attitude, from a December 2010 interview, is not news to the battered masses, but, Van Horn said, educators and policymakers haven't caught on.

"This is a kind of failure of effort as much as anything," he said.

"Every other recession we had was pretty short," he said, "and so the argument for [not pursuing] fundamental change was that the market will cure the problem."

For example, unemployment benefits were created with the assumption that most laid-off employees would find work quickly, usually in their fields, and often with their same employers, who rehired after a slack period.

But these days, with some jobs leaving forever, unemployment insurance must be recast as "reemployment insurance," Van Horn said.

"I'm not against unemployment insurance," he said. "It's a methadone maintenance policy, but it doesn't help them progress. It's no substitute for the two things that people need."

Unemployment benefits, he said, must be coupled with knowledgeable counseling about the labor market and retraining, with financial aid, if necessary, from the government.

That kind of knowledgeable labor market advice is equally important for displaced workers who need new careers and for young adults embarking on their futures, he said.

Growing up outside Pittsburgh, Van Horn spent his summers working in the steel mills.

One summer, he was laid off.

"In order to make close to what I was making, I worked 7 to 3 in a metal-fabrication shop and then worked at a gas station and I still wasn't making what I had made in the steel mill," he said.

Even though his college education made him a short-timer on the factory floor, he "worked like everybody else. It was a job, it was dangerous, it was scary and it was dirty. I really learned how hard people had to work."

"What did shape my views was growing up in Western Pennsylvania and seeing what happened in the Mon Valley" as the steel industry collapsed in the '60s and '70s.

"My father worked in the steel mills. He was laid off, also my relatives.

"It was devastating."


Contact Jane Von Bergen at jvonbergen@phillynews.com, @JaneVonBergen on Twitter, or at 215-854-2769. Read her workplace blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.

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