The cover story from this month’s Atlantic is deeply depressing. And, I can tell you from my (comparatively) brief experience with unemployment, based on a very real psychological phenomenon.
Back after The Wife and I moved to Tennessee and discovered that what we’d thought was the promise of a good job was actually nothing but hospitality, it took a long time for me to find new work. Not having productive work and not contributing much to the household led me to sink into a pretty deep funk, from which I had difficulty summoning the energy and hope to go out and take the necessary pro-active steps to get out from underneath our problems.
And it took a toll on my marriage; The Wife and I had many more conflicts, and much more serious conflicts, than we had at any other point in our relationship either before or since. We managed to stay together and get through our tough time, and now hopefully we have the roughest waters behind us. At least, now I can have the optimism to seriously think such a thing even if the realist within me knows that there are no guarantees about anything important in this life other than that it will eventually end. After many years together, I’ve never felt closer or more in love with my wife than I am now and I’m certain that both of us having productive careers and a sufficient level of material comfort is a factor in that. But I remember what it was like when things went unexpectedly bad and how frustrating it was to feel like we were powerless to change them, so when I read in the Atlantic that prolonged unemployment can cause significant and lasting effects on family dynamics, it doesn’t take much convincing at all to tell me that this is something real.
I’m also reminded of an old discussion from a few years ago at the firm. One of the attorneys had read that there is a seventy to eighty year “long cycle” in economics, which the author of the book thought was approaching its end. The end of the previous long cycle was the Great Depression beginning in 1929, and before it, the Crash of 1873, which led to a six-year depression and a wobbly economy for a twenty-five years after that, and the long cycle that at the time was thought to be coming to an end would have started a few years afterwards. I sure hope we aren’t re-creating 1873. Re-creating 1929 would be bad enough.
Now, the bit in the Atlantic about how unemployment depresses one’s future earning arc may be true for most but unless you’re on a Biglaw career track, attorney incomes often rise and fall according to a set of rhythms within which simple employment longevity is often not a significant factor. But that’s more important in terms of setting long-term fiscal policy for the government than anything else; the marketplace will take care of consumers getting things like food and insurance even if incomes do not rise as much as they have for the previous generation.
What I’m saying is that it’s right to take a close look at the social effects of extended periods of unemployment. They’re real and they will change our society whether we like it or not.