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According to a recently released poll, 32% of Americans are crazy.
At least, that's how I read the data. What the poll, conducted by Associated Press-GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media, actually found is that an astonishing 32% of those surveyed are confident that they are secure in their jobs.
How can anyone today feel safe? Many industries -- automobile manufacturing, media, the retail sector, financial services and construction to name a few -- are in free fall. And now even technology giants such as National Semiconductor and Dell have begun laying people off. So has that symbol of all symbols, Microsoft, which recently announced the first major layoff in the company's history.
And it all trickles down. As computer programmers cut back on their lattes, Starbucks workers lose their jobs. And as taxes shrink, governments contract, which means that tiny branches of local libraries are laying off people too -- despite the fact that, in many communities, libraries have emerged as gathering spots for unemployed people of all ages and at all stages in their careers.
The official U.S. unemployment rate is 7.6% and growing, and the actual rate is probably closer to 14% if you include people so discouraged that they've quit looking or taken part-time jobs because that's all they could find. Surveys have found that most Americans have friends or family members who have been laid off in the last six months. So it's hard to look at the one-third of Americans who remain optimistic and not conclude they're nuts.
In the global marketplace, mass firings have become the knee-jerk reaction to whatever bad news comes along. As defined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a mass layoff occurs when at least 50 initial claims for unemployment insurance are filed by the former employees of a single establishment during a five-week period. During December 2008 alone, there were, by those standards, 2,275 mass-layoff "events" nationwide, down slightly from November's record high of 2,333. As a point of comparison, there were "just" 1,352 mass layoffs in November 2007 and 1,469 the following month.
The bureau also reports on what it calls "extended" mass layoffs, which is what happens when private-sector nonfarm employers report that 50 or more employees have remained out of work for at least 31 days. During the fourth quarter of 2008, 3,140 extended mass layoffs left 508,859 people "separated" from their jobs. The construction and manufacturing sectors hit highs for extended mass layoffs, and so did eight states, including California.
I run a website, EconoWhiner.com, where people share their experiences, strategies and emotions in this time of economic downturn. One correspondent posted the story of a recent day: "I called a contact at one of our client's offices, only to be told that she had been laid off last week." Then, "I headed into a meeting with another client and right before that meeting began, they called one of my colleagues, my best friend at the office, into a side meeting where they fired him -- part of a large bank layoff. It was the closest this has come to me losing my job, and I felt that the Depression had hit."
It's a pretty good bet that this guy, although still employed, was not among those reporting confidence that they'd keep their jobs. So who are these confident workers? As a longtime journalist, married to a longtime editor, living on the same island as Wall Street, it's fair to say we have so many friends who are out of work that actually having a job is coming to seem odd. I can practically count on one hand the families I know in which both spouses seem "safely" employed.
"I have retrained several times, relocated many times, and always survived, at least until now," another EconoWhiner correspondent recently wrote. "This time it really is different, and I think that everyone can sense that. It feels like there are no actual jobs at the end of the Monster.com, Twitter and Facebook rainbow -- it's really all one big support group. No one gets to go to a regular place every day where they get paid on a regular basis. But everyone pretends anyway, because what's the alternative to this ceaseless networking? Sitting at home rewriting your resume one more time?"
On the last business day of 2008, there were just 2.7 million job openings in the United States, bringing the job-openings rate to 1.9% -- the lowest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started monitoring this eight years ago.
Another recent poster to EconoWhiner described what it's like looking for a job when there essentially aren't any: "I was laid off in May 2008 from a job I was sure I would have until I retired. So now I spend my days sending my resume into the black hole of the Internet, not sure if it even reached its destination. I was completely overwhelmed when I actually received a letter in the mail from an organization that informed me I did not get the job I had applied for but was more than welcome to reapply if another opening came available. I keep it in a special place so that when I feel totally disconnected from the outside world, I can take it out and read it."
So who were these optimists in the AP-GfK poll? Here's what I suspect: If it's true that we can't dream about our own deaths, maybe we can't contemplate a world in which the skills that we've learned, the jobs that we've worked at, the employers who have hired us and the industries that we've taken for granted are disappearing all around us. Maybe that one-third of Americans are simply in denial. Maybe the real question is, why aren't more of us?
Jill Andresky Fraser is the creator of EconoWhiner.com and the author of "White-Collar Sweatshop: The Deterioration of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate America." A longer version of this article appears at tomdispatch.com