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.”
Occupy Wall Street—the imagery of thousands of people quixotically occupying a downtown patch of land—has touched the right nerve, putting financial greed on a par with gay marriage and abortion as a public issue, and arousing greater emotion than joblessness. In Zuccotti Park, unemployed demonstrators aren’t hard to find, but they play down that aspect of their discontent. Certainly Tammy Bick does. A regular at the park in the early weeks, she has been out of work since November 2010, when she lost her job as a secretary at an HIV clinic, a position she had held for five years. She disclosed the layoff almost offhandedly during an interview, and made no mention of unemployment—hers or anyone else’s—in the hand-lettered pasteboard sign that she kept strapped across her chest while in the park. It decried Wall Street’s “manipulators.”
“This country is like a broken wheel, and there are a multitude of things that have to be fixed,” says Bick, who is 49. She lives in Hamden, Connecticut, but shifted to a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn to shorten the commute to Zuccotti Park. In mid-October she turned her attention to a smaller sit-in closer to home—at New Haven’s Green. She adds, by way of explaining her priorities, that in addition to the Wall Street “manipulators,” foreclosure is higher on her list of protest targets than unemployment, although the latter often results in the former. She gets by on extended unemployment benefits and help from her fiancé, who is employed. “If I had a job,” Bick insists, “I would have taken vacation time and still gone to the park.”
The passivity toward unemployment that Wolff describes and Stevenson and Bick illustrate might give way, in time, to anger and protest. Occupy Wall Street and its numerous iterations across the country could take on a second life, one that spurs the unemployed to finally speak out forcefully on their own behalf. Already there have been isolated outbursts. But for such incidents to spread and take hold, more confidence is required that speaking out would produce results—and confidence is lacking, says Richard Curtin, director of the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, a monthly national poll of 500 people.
“People are discouraged,” Curtin says. “They believe that the administration and Congress tried to do a lot to get the economy restarted and nothing happened. So they are gradually embracing the notion that government is incapable of creating jobs.”
The government has, arguably, invited this response by talking about creating jobs without yet doing so—echoing a similar reluctance in the past. Twice since World War II Congress has watered down bills that would have mandated full employment—once in 1946, although the Depression was still fresh in people’s minds, and again in the mid-’70s, in the midst of a severe recession. The bills became law—the second one, finally enacted in 1978, is famously known as the Humphrey-Hawkins Act—but without the provisions that would have required the government to either hire directly or subsidize hiring whenever the unemployment rate rose above a specified level. The laws, in sum, were toothless.
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the rise of supply-side economics, the dynamics shifted drastically. Unemployment was no longer seen as a failure of the nation’s employers to generate enough demand for workers. That was and still is the reason, but it faded as an explanation and as a prod to action. Instead, the unemployed are persistently blamed for their own unemployment, which eases pressure on government to help them. If only they acquired enough education and skill, the argument goes—and it is endlessly repeated—they would be hired. Corporate executives, politicians and many prominent economists push this view, and the unemployed, encouraged to blame themselves, keep silent. Or as Richard Sennett, a New York University sociologist, puts it: “People don’t cooperate with each other. They’ve lost the desire to do so and the skill that cooperation requires, so when things fall apart, they react as if it were their individual failure and are passive about it.”
Income also plays a role, or rather the decline in median family income in this century—the first time that has happened since 1954, according to Census data. “That is just stunning, and a big piece of the puzzle,” says Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress. “Why aren’t people angry about unemployment? Well, really, why aren’t people angry about declining living standards?”
Unions contribute to the passivity by focusing their energies on the already employed—mainly their members and those they seek to organize, although even here the rise of the two-tier wage in a significant number of new union agreements undercuts the incomes of thousands of new workers. Unions rarely focus on the unemployed or speak for them.
Neither does mainstream economics. “Some elites in the profession have basically popularized the view that high unemployment is one of those things that happens from time to time, and there is nothing we can do about it; it has to run its course,” says Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, an organization that decries the decline in manufacturing’s share of the economy and the workforce.
As for the unemployed, extended jobless pay (currently a maximum of fifty-three weeks, in most cases, well beyond the standard twenty-six) helps to relieve the hardship—and to silence the recipients, some of whom fear that the extra monthly checks might be cut off if they speak out. For its part, the Obama administration contributes to the forbearance, partly by holding out hope that the American Jobs Act, now before Congress, will bring relief.
“Obama has done an extraordinary job of dampening the potential unrest,” says Richard Freeman, an Independent and a labor economist at Harvard University, citing the president’s skilled oratory and his somewhat vague jobs proposal. “The unemployed,” Freeman adds, “have been unwilling so far to go against the president, and he is living on that, above the fray.”
Federal disability benefits also contribute to the passivity. They go now to more than 10 million people, a greater portion of the population than in the early ’80s, which means that many people who worked or clamored for work in those earlier hard times, despite their disabilities, now no longer do so, seeking safe harbor instead through disability insurance.
Still others without jobs find ways to make do. A higher percentage of the nation’s young people—25 to 34—are living with parents than in 2007, the last full year before the recession. And more families are sharing a house than in the recent past, shrinking their costs in the absence of jobs and sufficient income.
“What we are really doing is asking Americans to tough it out for the next two or three years,” says Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-oriented think tank. “And that is going to leave a scar on many people long after the jobs come back.”
Janet Veum in Milwaukee considers herself already scarred, along with many of the unemployed people she works with in her position as a recently hired coordinator for Wisconsin Jobs Now, a coalition of community groups. In this new job, Veum, 51, has begun to participate in demonstrations against unemployment—mainly marches and rallies that her organization sponsors. But that’s because protest is a bread-and-butter activity for Wisconsin Jobs Now. Veum went fifteen months without work after losing her last job, as a marketing manager for a paper company. “During all that time,” she says, “it didn’t occur to me to protest or speak out. I was focused on my own job search and didn’t think about the bigger situation.”
Public libraries are one venue that does bring the unemployed together, but in silence and in small numbers. Many companies require job applicants to file their applications electronically, using forms posted on a company website. That is particularly true for low-wage jobs at fast-food chains, shopping mall outlets and supermarkets. For applicants who don’t have computers in their homes—and many don’t—a public library’s computers become a substitute, and on any weekday morning small groups of men and women are seated intently at terminals in libraries across the country.
Franklyn Wylder, 24, was among the handful at the White Plains, New York, public library on a recent morning. He had hurt his knee in a pickup basketball game, an injury that cost him his job climbing ladders to stock shelves in a home furnishings store. With the knee almost healed, he wanted to work again, to help pay his expenses while he attended a local college. Filling out applications, he listed his computer skills and also his recent work as a busboy and grocery store custodian—jobs that paid $7.75 an hour or less. Needing that income, he scrambled to fill out and transmit applications to Walmart, Target and Sears plus a handful of small retailers.
“Protesting unemployment is all well and good,” Wylder says, “but it doesn’t pay the bills and it gets in the way of applying for jobs. You have to put yourself out to potential employers and not waste time.”
Absorbed in making enough to get by while he finishes his course work, Wylder does not yet connect his plight with the larger issue of joblessness in America, or the role government might have to play, even by hiring people, WPA-style, to absorb all those who want—indeed, need—jobs. Once that connection is broadly made, if it ever is, the cry for work at decent wages will certainly reverberate in Zuccotti Park.