ghost workers of America

I read with interest a review in the Sunday S.F. Chron by Noam Lupu of Louis Uchitelle’s new book, “The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences” which looks at the now common-place American phenomenon of worker layoffs and the effects of these layoffs on ordinary Americans. The statistics are startling but it’s the stories that compel.
A review at by Katie Benner focuses on her interview with Uchitelle who expressed his frustration with those who would make it all about the statistics – and politics:

“Everyone who talks to me about the book wants to make it about finding an enemy or blaming or politics … they don’t get it, and you don’t either,” he says in an interview. “This is not a book about unemployment. It’s simply a book that sticks to what happens to people after they’ve been laid off.”

Benner herself expresses some skepticism about Uchitelle’s primary thesis.

Like it or not, there are plenty of people who don’t care about the fact that laid-off workers may suffer from depression, are often forced to take a more menial or worse-paying job, or that private lives are damaged by the loss of a job and the esteem it confers.

Thomas Geoghegan at the New York Times has a more empathetic take in his review:

At least 30 million full-time American employees have gotten pink slips since the Labor Department belatedly started to count them in 1984. But add in the early retirees, the “quits” who saw the layoffs coming, and the number is much higher–a whole ghost nation trekking into what for most will be lower-wage work.

One estimate of the real number of Americans who once worked full-time and who are now jobless is 114 million (in 2004). And for those who are working, there is this to ponder:

…. as of 2004, more than 45 percent of American workers were earning $13.25 an hour or less. The jobs that the country has been “growing” the fastest include those like janitor, hospital orderly and cashier.

I am one of those “ghost workers” myself, and I know first hand the psychological ups and downs that come with losing a job to an economic “downturn”. The downturn did not, however, cause the “downsizing” of younger, low-wage employees at my workplace, or affect the few at the top earning three times my salary.
After a year-long series of complicated and exhausting job interviews in my field of expertise, with negative results, it became clear to me that I was not going to be able to re-enter the field any time soon, if at all. Fortunately, others do not depend upon my ability to earn a “Bay Area wage” and I have other skills and interests that I can turn to for both income and emotional sustenance.
But for many Americans, “the Great Depression” is not an historical event of the past, but a personal one that began the day they were laid off from a decent job.



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