The long-term unemployed: How do they finally find new jobs?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
June 6 2011 10:08 AM

Your Year (or More) of Living Joblessly

How did you find a job after long-term unemployment? Tell us about it.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

No recession in modern times has left so many people out of work for so long as the one that continues to plague us. Among the nearly 14 million Americans officially counted as unemployed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost one-third have been out of work for a year or more. That number doesn't even count everyone, says Lauren Appelbaum, research director for the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. About a million and a half people would take a job if they could find one, but instead have gone back to school, or are caring for ailing relatives, or are doing something else while waiting for the job market to improve. Then there are more than 800,000 who are so discouraged that they have given up looking and are burning through their savings, bunking with relatives, or scraping by in what economists call the "informal economy." Appelbaum says even if the economy picks up, returning all these people to the workforce will be a monumental task. "The first people to be hired are going to be those who have not been out that long," she told me.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

Meanwhile, researchers are charting the financial, psychological, and physical effects of long-term unemployment, and not surprisingly the news is bad. In testimony before Congress, Till von Wachter, associate professor of economics at Columbia, presented a grim picture of long-term unemployment damaging health and even shortening lives. And when people finally return to the workplace, he noted, their earning power can be reduced by as much as 20 percent for the next two decades. The scourge afflicts an entire family, too: Long-term unemployment can echo through the next generation, resulting in lower educational attainment and earnings by the children of the unemployed. For that matter, it can mean there are fewer members of the next generation. Appelbaum says some research shows that bad economic prospects can mean people delay starting families, or have fewer children.

OK, the recession is depressing. But here at DoubleX, we're looking for good news. We want your stories of finding work after being unemployed for a year or more. We want to hear how you—young, middle-aged, or old—beat the odds, threw off the stigma, and got back into the workforce. This includes not only those of you who were unemployed because you had lost a job, but recent graduates who finally found that first job, and stay-at-home mothers who became breadwinners. Did you get new training that resulted in a job? Did you fashion yourself as a "consultant" so that you didn't have to explain an eyebrow-raising gap in your employment record? Did you become a volunteer and make yourself so valuable they started paying you? Did you use social networking to connect yourself to people who knew of a job opening? Did you pack everything in your car and drive someplace with better job opportunities?

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We want to hear your stories because there's not much good advice to give people when job seekers outnumber jobs. For example, this article from U.S. News emphasizes the importance of staying positive, despite the natural inclination to sink into the slough of despond. But a recent Brookings Institution study on job searches during this time of mass unemployment found that the longer people are out of work, the sadder looking for work makes them. Searching for a job becomes so "emotionally onerous" that the time spent looking decreases the longer people are unemployed.

It's also a commonplace that the unemployed, beset with financial and emotional troubles, tend to let their crucial social contacts dry up. As the authors of the Brookings study, Alan B. Krueger of Princeton and Andreas Mueller of Stockholm University, discovered, "Almost two-thirds of job search time is spent looking at ads, placing or answering ads and sending out applications. Contacting friends and relatives, which has been found to be a highly effective job search method in past studies accounts for 9 percent of search time."

 Besides being subjected to economic forces beyond their control, the longer people are unemployed, the greater the stigma they must fight to get back into the workplace. Employers believe that being out of a job for a long time leaves a worker with eroded skills, although as Appelbaum says, "Skills don't deteriorate that quickly." They also start to wonder if the unemployment isn't in some part the unemployed person's fault. A study by researchers at UCLA and the State University of New York–Stony Brook titled "The Stigma of Unemployment: When Joblessness Leads to Being Jobless" found that when people were given identical résumés and told that they were from a person who was either employed or unemployed, they tended to rate the unemployed person as a less competent and desirable potential employee. The effect was softened if the unemployment seemed beyond the workers' control—as when an employer went out of business, for example.

The Brookings researchers worry that with so many Americans out of work for so long, the emotional toll of unemployment will keep many people from looking aggressively even if the economy starts to significantly improve, a result that would have damaging effects on the recovery. As they write, "Interventions that keep the long-term unemployed engaged in job search despite the high psychological cost may be particularly valuable in the current environment, with the average duration of unemployment at a record high level."

So this is our intervention. Re-employed people, tell us how you did it. What combination of strategy, persistence, and luck paid off? What advice do you have for those who are still sending out résumés and praying?

Please send your stories to emilyyoffe@hotmail.com. We will use your name unless you specify otherwise. Thank you.