The Four Horsemen of the Job-pocalypse


With 25 million Americans broadly unemployed, enough to fill the states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland, our job crisis is multi-dimensional. First, as we know, very few employers are hiring. Even when they announce job openings, they're slow to fill them. Second, when employers set aside money for workers, they're increasingly adding contracters rather than full time staff. Third, a team of factors are depressing the wages and benefits of our workforce. Fourth, even if you're hired at a decent wage, the rampant rise of medical inflation will eat into your salary in the years to come.

There you have it: the Hiring Crisis, the Part-Time Crisis, the Earnings Crisis and the Health Care Crisis. Together, I'll call them the four Horsemen of the Job-pocalypse.

I. The Hiring Crisis

There are five unemployed workers for every one job opening today, more than twice the historical average. What's more, employers are taking their time to fill those few spots. As the WSJ reported last week, job openings are up 26 percent from mid-2009, but the rate of hiring is practically the same. Employers are paralyzed by fear that the economy could double dip and that demand is too low to justify new investments.

There's an interesting general theory for why we started seeing jobless recoveries in the last two recessions in the early '90s and '00s. Northwestern University's Robert Gordon calls out four important trends that depress employment at the end of a downturn.

1. Stocks make up a much larger portion of executive compensation today, which means companies are more sensitive about controlling costs during upswings to ensure positive earnings reports, which ensure healthy stock prices.

2. Competing in a global market muddies long-term revenue forecasts, making large employers nervous about quickly adding back the workers they've cut.

3. Technology has made many middle tier while-collar jobs vulnerable to replacement by computers or outsourcing.

4. It's more popular than ever to add part-timers first.

II. The Part-Time Crisis

part time.pngEven when companies are hiring, they're often not hiring full staffers with benefits. To save money and insure themselves against the likelihood of a revenue dip, they're bringing on contracters, consultants, and part-timers, whom they can pay flexibly and extend or drop when needed.

The recession has mainstreamed the burgeoning gig economy. America's part-time population has doubled in the downturn, according the BLS. A 2009 poll found that one-third of the country is "now working either freelance or two jobs." The new reality is that scared employers are finding ways of adding hours without adding full-time staffers.

More people are working part-time: so what? As I wrote in March, independent workers rarely qualify for unemployment insurance, health insurance, or wage theft laws. So when freelancers go out on their own, they are, literally, out on their own. This shadow labor market needs a better safety net for when freelancers fall.

III. The Earnings Crisis

real earnings.png

Let's say you do land a full-time job with benefits. The good news is, you have a job, with real income, and health care. The bad news is that even as economic production slowly lifts off the floor, the economy is sitting on hours and wages. The above chart tracks the month-to-month movement of real earnings, which means income plus benefits. As you can see, it's anything but consistent, and the July reading was as bad a drop as we've seen in a year. Low demand, wide uncertainty, and scant inflation is putting a lid on salaries.

Static wages is a measurable challenge for the economy, but employment in a time of massive unemployment also carries an emotional toll. One quarter of the workforce is afraid of layoffs, and almost half of workers earning between $50K and $100K are concerned that their benefits will be reduced in the near future, according to a new Gallup poll.

A smaller stack of dollars for compensation also puts pressure on the country's fleet of workers for retirement. With net household assets down nearly 20 percent since 2007, and with some employers cutting back on their 401(k) contributions, we are looking at something like "the end of retirement as we know it," as Megan McArdle put it.

IV. The Health Care Crisis

The economy will eventually recover fully, unemployment will fall, and hours and wages will rise. But how much will they rise? Between 1999 and 2008, employer-sponsored health insurance premiums increased six times faster than wages, Tim Noah wrote. As the graph below shows, health care premiums are stealing your raise, and they will continue to steal your raise as long as (1) employers are responsible for paying your insurance premiums, and, more importantly (2) medical inflation gallops along, uninterrupted.


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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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