What It Feels Like to Be Unemployed

Unemployment hit 9.7% last month, and many expect that it will reach 10% soon. What do the polls say about job distress, and how do people who have lost a job experience it?

New data show just how widespread job loss is; in its latest survey, 5% of adults told GfK/Associated Press interviewers that they had lost a job as a result of economic conditions in the past six months, and separately, 26% said someone in their family had. Two-thirds in another question said someone they knew other than a family member had lost a job in that period. In a September ABC News/Washington Post question, 41% said they or someone living with them had had work hours or pay cut.

While Ben Bernanke may be right that the recession is "very likely over at this point," his caveat--"it's still going to feel like a very weak economy for some time as many people will still find that their job security and their employment status is not what they wish it was" is borne out by hard economic data.

When asked about who should be mainly responsible for helping people who are laid off, 51% of the unemployed said the government, 33% said workers themselves and 17% said their previous employer.

A new survey on the attitudes of the unemployed, by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, examines not only how people lost their jobs, but also how they are faring. The findings include a few surprises.

To conduct the survey, the Heldrich Center worked with Knowledge Networks, a pioneer in online surveys. For the survey, Knowledge Networks used its online panel and produced a sample of 1,202 adults who were unemployed at any time in the past 12 months. Of that group, 894 were unemployed and looking for work.

When asked about who should be mainly responsible for helping people who are laid off, 51% of the unemployed said the government, 33% said workers themselves and 17% said their previous employer. The surveyors also asked about the most important service government could provide in response to a layoff, and unemployment benefits and checks were the top response. Job placement services were a distant second.

As for the demographics of unemployment, a majority of the unemployed in this survey, 52%, said it was the first time they had been unemployed or looking for work (for at least three months) in the past five years. Nearly a quarter said this had happened to them three or more times. Six in 10 of those whose employer had let them go had no advance warning. Adding to the pain for many, nearly four in 10 said they had been employed by their company for more than three years, and one in 10 for more than a decade. Only 15% were offered severance or other compensation. Nearly half (47%) said there was no chance that they could return to their old job. Perhaps surprisingly, 61% of those who left involuntarily said in another question that they were treated fairly by their employer when the termination occurred.

Half of the smaller group--those unemployed and looking for work--said they did not have health insurance. Fourty-three percent had received unemployment benefits, and of those more than 60% were very worried they would run out before they found a job.

Seventy-six percent said the economic situation had had a major impact on their families. Seventy-seven percent of the unemployed who were looking for work reported feeling stressed, and 65% said they were anxious, but two-thirds also said they were eager for a new start. Perhaps surprisingly, almost as many, 43%, were optimistic about finding a job in the near future as were pessimistic, 47%.

Government statistics like the unemployment rate are invaluable, but they cannot give us a numerical sense of what it is like to be unemployed. Kudos to the Heldrich Center for providing the raw material.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Karlyn Bowman compiles and analyzes American public opinion using available polling data on a variety of subjects, including the economy, taxes, the state of workers in America, environment and global warming, attitudes about homosexuality and gay marriage, NAFTA and free trade, the war in Iraq, and women's attitudes. In addition, Ms. Bowman has studied and spoken about the evolution of American politics because of key demographic and geographic changes. She has often lectured on the role of think tanks in the United States and writes a weekly column for Forbes.com.
  • Phone: 2028625910
    Email: kbowman@aei.org
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