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The Uncertain Attitude of the U.S. Worker

Although the economy is expanding and unemployment is lower than it's been since the late 1990s, the perceptions of risk and insecurity on the part of the U.S. worker do not match this reality. Although people think the economy is better, they aren't sure if they are actually better off as individuals. The average U.S. worker feels insecure about both job and future employment.

As stated above, the United States added an average of about 175,000 new jobs every month in 2006, and more than 110,000 every month in 2007, and we've gone from 6.3% unemployment in 2003 to between 4.7% and 4.5% today. The average income in the United States was up 6.5% in 2006 over 2005. Salaries were up 6.9% in 2006 over 2005. U.S. households' net worth recently hit $52 trillion, which is a record high, and corporate profits also are up. As a country and as individuals, we should be encouraged if not elated.

But in spite of all of the positive signs, we as individuals are pessimistic, uncertain, and, to say the least, vulnerable. Countless corporate restructurings and layoffs have destroyed the concept of career-long employment that for too long sustained the U.S. workers' confidence.

Lifelong employment is a thing of the past. Louis Uchitelle, who wrote The Disposable American (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), notes that, between 1981 and 2003, some 30 million U.S. workers were displaced due to layoffs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A modern form of contracting the workforce began with "layoffs."

Quite a number of surveys confirm that the percentage of individuals "somewhat likely" or "likely" to be laid off or fired has steadily risen over the past decade. Layoffs are not going to go away, but they don't have to be as numerous as they have been since the late 1990s. Uchitelle asks, "Are we going to once again be a community of people who feel obligated to take care of one another, or are we going to continue as a collection of individuals each increasingly concerned only with his or her well being? If we can band together again, as we did during the 40-year stretch that started in the Depression and ended with the Vietnam War, job security will gradually return to the United States," according to Uchitelle. His hope couldn't be further from the truth.

Even on the CEO level, stability is treacherous. In 2006, a U.S. company CEO departed either voluntarily or by force every six hours, double the number of CEOs who left their jobs in 2004.

Political commentator Ruy Teixeira[1] observed that the United States is a "nation of unhappy campers." He cited a Hart Research Associates/AFL-CIO poll that found 54% of Americans are "worried and concerned about reaching their economic goals." The majority of these people felt that their real wages were declining, felt that their earnings were not keeping up with prices, and worried "very or somewhat often" about the cost of living rising faster than their income. In spite of the reality of things like low unemployment and high household net worth, over 75% of Americans are both dissatisfied with the country's economic situation and worried about achieving their economic and financial goals. The concrete facts don't support our fearful attitude.

This fearful attitude reaches all strata of employees. Traditionally, the least educated are far more economically insecure than their better-educated peers.

Workers with less than a high school education are the group most likely to report significant employment and financial anxiety. However, recent studies indicate that college-educated U.S. workers, with perceived "comfortable" earnings, are experiencing the same significant levels of anxiety.

In addition, the percentage of U.S. managers, mostly degreed, who felt they were doing worse financially in a given year than in the previous one has increased over the last three decades. In fact, the rate of job losses among the most educated, those with a college degree, has increased more steeply than the rate of job loss among the less educated. In one study that included proportionate samples of all education and economic levels, close to 50% of the individuals surveyed reported that they would be very fearful of finding a job with the equivalent pay and benefits to their current job if they lost their current job.

Rising levels of insecurity, even among those who have traditionally been in the highest and most secure levels of employment, suggests that the U.S. dream is under a lot of pressure. It appears that the most advantaged among us are lying awake at night, thinking about job and economic issues. National disasters like 9/11 and extended war, as well as regional "recessions" caused by things like Hurricane Katrina and the subprime housing bust don't help. They reinforce economic and job fears.

  • [1] Ruy Teixeira is a Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation and The Center for American Progress and author or coauthor of five books. Quotes are from What the Public Really Wants on Jobs and the Economy, Ruy Teixeira, Center for American Progress, October 2006.
 
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