Unemployment and stagnant wages: Not the future as promised

This Horsey cartoon from 2010 pictures the dilemma of the chronically unemployed - a dilemma that continues for many Americans.
(David Horsey / Los Angeles Times)

The happy news is that the American economy is producing more jobs and the unemployment rate is continuing to fall. The less happy news is that, in the words of economist Gary Burtless, this is happening “at a heartbreakingly slow pace.”

In a blog for Brookings, Burtless reports that there were 162,000 new jobs in July. “Employment gains of between 75,000 and 80,000 a month are needed to keep the unemployment rate from rising,” Burtless said. “So far this year the (Brookings) employer survey shows that payrolls have been rising about 190,000 a month, fast enough so that we should expect the unemployment rate to fall.”

Nevertheless, at this rate, it may take another five or six years for the country to reach full employment, he said.

Once upon a time, in the 1960s and ‘70s, futurists predicted that a day was nearing when we would not have to worry about job numbers. Robots and other kinds of technology would free us from needing to work and we could spend our days pursuing personal adventures or sitting under a tree writing poetry. Well, robots and technology, as well as other transformations of the world economy, have indeed eliminated jobs, but those who have been “freed” from labor are, at best, sitting under trees writing applications for unemployment payments and, at worst, sitting by freeways writing cardboard signs to solicit money for food.


The futurists envisioned a world where the wealth produced by an economy that required fewer laborers would be spread around to everyone. That’s not the world we live in. In our world, the rich are richer than ever and everyone else is living with less.

There may be new jobs, but they are more likely to be 29-hour-a-week jobs flipping hamburgers than fair-wage careers building something useful. The bright future of the dreamers is, as always, some other day.