Just a week into the Occupy Wall Street protest at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, Gordon Stevenson, an unemployed aircraft pilot, declared that if only there were such a demonstration near his home in Boston, he would join it. “It would give me a way to focus my anger,” he said.
Well, the opportunity came. The protest, which started September 17, soon spread to other cities, including Boston, where demonstrators occupied Dewey Square, an easy commute from Stevenson’s suburban home. But he stayed away. As a registered Democrat, he was sympathetic but also skeptical that the protesters could harness their discontent to a political agenda, particularly one that zeroed in on unemployment as its chief concern. “I would want to know if there is a significant element down there compatible with what upsets me,” Stevenson said.
What upsets him is that he’s been without a job for two and a half years, and that at age 62, if a commercial pilot’s job at the controls of privately owned jets doesn’t materialize soon, he might never fly professionally again—cutting off his career half a decade short of his intended retirement. And yet rather than protest, he remains at home, getting by on his wife’s salary as the director of a music school (she earns 75 percent of the $100,000 he once earned) and settling into a passivity that is widespread among the nation’s unemployed.
“If I am angry at anything,” Stevenson says, suppressing his anger, “I am angry at the people on the right who have been stating, one after another, that if we reduced taxes, employers would hire. Well, look at the economic data; you see that does not happen.”
More than 25 million people in America are unemployed or stuck in part-time work or parked on the sidelines hoping for jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Roughly 6.2 million are classified as long-term unemployed, which means they have been seeking work for at least six months. Not since the severe recession of the early 1980s has the share of the population wanting jobs or more hours of work been so high. But the numerous rallies and protests that gave vent to the hardships of unemployment in the early ’80s are absent now.
Then, the manufacturing sector went through its first big shakeout since the 1930s, sidelining and shocking hundreds of thousands of workers who had thought their jobs were secure. In a climactic moment, an estimated 260,000 people marched on Washington in September 1981, protesting President Reagan’s mass dismissal of the nation’s air traffic controllers the month before because they had refused to heed his order to end a strike and return to work.
Nearly a generation later, the unemployed think differently. They join self-help and job-search groups, but they don’t see a route to employment through protest or through outspoken demand. Activism has given way to acquiescence, although unemployment is once again stubbornly high in the aftermath of a recession that has left the economy persistently weak.
“It is remarkable how passive the American people are about unemployment,” says Edward Wolff, a labor economist at New York University. He and others blame the passivity in large part on the decline in union clout after the failure of the air traffic controllers’ strike, which undermined the sympathy toward organized labor that had been characteristic of Americans since the ’30s. “People today,” Wolff says, “are more susceptible, as far as getting their emotions aroused, to issues like gay marriage or abortion, that kind of thing.”