Five Things We Learned About Unemployment

Our "Unemployment Stories" series went on for 40 volumes over the course of a year. You can read them all here. If you'd like a Cliff's Notes version of what we've learned about unemployment in America, a few thoughts are below.

Unemployment is like a natural disaster: Although unemployment is often perceived as a state of being that is, fundamentally, a choice, it seems to be more like a hurricane that sweeps away lives and leaves people powerless to stop its wrath. Most of those who wrote to us were unemployed due to economic conditions far beyond their control. Their situation was often worsened by lack of health insurance and unforeseen bad luck. And their best efforts to land jobs were often thwarted by the same implacable forces that made them unemployed in the first place. Unemployment is, at its core, bad luck. And it can happen to anyone.

More education is not necessarily the answer: Many of those who wrote to us sought refuge from a bad economy in college or grad school. This often left them with a much greater amount of debt, and no job. No one that we heard from told us that advanced degrees were a magic bullet. Many regretted their student debts. Be realistic when performing a cost/ benefit analysis of higher education, its potential to help you, and the debt that it will saddle you with.

Unemployed people could use a friend: The majority of unemployed people we heard from wrote about the depression and isolation that accompany joblessness. Friends drift away; social bonds are weakened; people feel less and less like participants in society at large. This tends to worsen the longer that unemployment persists. Anyone who has friends or family members that are unemployed should make a special effort to stay in contact with them and include them in activities— and, if possible, to plan activities that don't cost a lot of money.

Unemployed people want to work: The stereotype of unemployed people as "lazy" did not bear any resemblance to most of the stories that we heard. Unemployed people routinely told us of sending out hundreds and hundreds of job applications, networking up a storm, moving to more promising areas, and doing everything else that one might think of in order to find a job, only to come up empty. Another common theme was the reluctance of employers to hire people who had been jobless for a long time, as well as their reluctance to hire older workers. It is cruelly ironic and unfair that two of the segments of society most in need of employment have an especially hard time convincing businesses to hire them.

The social safety net is full of holes: If we accept the fact that any one of us could fall prey to unemployment due to factors beyond our control, we must also accept that a strong social safety net— unemployment insurance, health care, affordable housing, and so on— is a necessity for a just society. The experiences of the people who wrote to us, though, are rife with unemployment benefits that are hard to obtain, or that cut off; with health care costs that bankrupt people at their neediest moments, and with downward spirals of poverty that end on friend's couches, back in a parent's house, or on the streets.

Those of us fortunate enough to avoid unemployment should recognize our prosperity for what it really is: luck.

[Unemployment Stories. Photo: AP]