We all know it's hard to get a job these days. The sick employment situation affects people like us -- baby boomers in their 50s who are finished with one career and may want to start a second career, or else post-career 60-somethings who need a part-time job to bring in some extra cash.
The weak employment picture affects our children even more. Many of them are a year or two out of college and still living at home. They're either not working at all, or they're laboring away in a low-wage job for which they are ridiculously overqualified. (For the record, B and I have four children between us, ranging in age from 19 to 27. One's in college; one's in graduate school; two are working for not much money.)
So what's going on? Will the unemployment rate get back to a more normal 4 - 5 percent in our lifetimes? Will it ever again be easy to find a job?
I don't know. But I see three explanations that make sense to me.
James Surowiecki in this week's The New Yorker argues that the main problem is the recent recession. The economy has been slow to recover, so employers are slow to hire new workers. This is the explanation we want to hear, because it suggests that as the economy cycles out of recession into a reasonable expansion, the employment picture will improve. And everything will get back to normal.
But Surowiecki cites another problem called "structural unemployment." This unemployment comes from a mismatch between American skills and the jobs that are available. All those construction workers from the mid-2000s, for example, know how to install roofs and sheetrock and plumbing. But we no longer need people with that experience. We need workers with computer skills and medical training and environmental know-how.
The other aspect of structural unemployment is the issue of what our schools are teaching and what young people are learning. Too many college kids major in history, English, art or sociology. Not enough in math and science and engineering. Then there's the language problem. Not enough people learn a foreign language. Being able to speak only one language really restricts your job opportunities in this global economy.
There is one more issue. Pallavi Gogoi points out on the Huffington Post that, in fact, American companies are hiring people hand over fist. The problem is that they are not hiring Americans. They are hiring workers in other countries. Caterpillar, for example, hired more than 15,000 workers in the past year. But more than half of them were overseas. Gogoi cites a figure from The Economic Policy Institute in Washington, DC, saying that American companies created fewer than 1 million jobs in the U.S. while offering 1.4 million new jobs overseas.
So . . . the good news, according to Surowiecki, is that a lot of American jobs will come back along with the American economy. The bad news is that a lot of jobs will not. Instead, as economic sage Paul Volcker has pointed out, our children will have to go out and get them. By developing their skills. Learning a language. And maybe even relocating overseas.
Then, when our kids move up in their careers, there might be a job over at the mall for you and me!