Graduating into a recession

Louis Uchitelle, reporting for the New York Times, penned a long news feature about the challenges and dilemmas facing younger folks who are trying to enter the workforce in the midst of this recession.  His overall assessment is a bracing one:

For young adults, the prospects in the workplace, even for the college-educated, have rarely been so bleak. Apart from the 14 percent who are unemployed and seeking work…, 23 percent are not even seeking a job, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The total, 37 percent, is the highest in more than three decades and a rate reminiscent of the 1930s.

The college-educated among these young adults are better off. But nearly 17 percent are either unemployed or not seeking work, a record level (although some are in graduate school). The unemployment rate for college-educated young adults, 5.5 percent, is nearly double what it was on the eve of the Great Recession, in 2007, and the highest level — by almost two percentage points — since the bureau started to keep records in 1994 for those with at least four years of college.

Uchitelle’s article centers around a young college graduate who is searching for work and assessing his options.  It weaves into the story a look at the job prospects faced by his father and grandfather at similar stages in their lives, making for an interesting generational comparison.

Recession generations?

The sheer luck of one’s birth year may impact both short and longer term earnings.  Uchitelle cites a study by Yale economist Lisa B. Kahn, who found that:

those who graduated from college during the severe early ’80s recession earned up to 30 percent less in their first three years than new graduates who landed their first jobs in a strong economy. Even 15 years later, their annual pay was 8 to 10 percent less.

I remember that recession well.  I graduated from Valparaiso University in 1981, holder of a B.A. in political science, looking for work in the depressed northwest Indiana region where I grew up.  The area’s economy was especially hard hit by the decline of the steel mills, and jobs in all sectors were sparse.  I ended up taking work at the local drug store chain where I had spent college summers and doing some part-time reporting for a weekly newspaper, while living at home with my parents.

I would be among the fortunate ones.  It was my plan to go to law school. A year after graduating from college, I would pack my bags and head off to law school at New York University.  Three years later, with a law degree in hand and buoyed by a stronger job market, my employment prospects improved considerably.

Nonetheless, one of my enduring memories of that interim year is of working for the drug store chain, hearing stories from cashiers of spouses being laid off from the steel mills, and experiencing the indignity of having my own hours cut to the bone because business was bad. For northwest Indiana, it was a harbinger of things to come.  Those mill jobs disappeared permanently, and the lower paying retail positions in strip malls lining the region’s boulevards have not bridged the income gap.

This one is worse 

Comparisons between the current recession and that of the early 1980s are frequent, but this one is worse.  In terms of severity, the Great Recession lies somewhere between the 80s recession and the Great Depression of the 1930s. We appear to be looking at structural changes in the labor markets, with the term “jobless recovery” frequently invoked to suggest a sluggish comeback for the stock market with little or no corresponding improvement in the employment situation.

To make matters worse, younger workers are competing with, directly or indirectly, older workers who are staying in or reentering the labor force after their already meager retirement accounts took a battering during the stock market meltdown.  (Several months ago, I wrote a short piece about this looming generational conflict, which readers may access here.)

In addition, many of today’s college graduates are burdened by student loan debt unheard of in previous generations.  It’s one thing to wait out a recession, bohemian style, when not encumbered by heavy debt.  This comparative luxury is not available to those who leave school facing huge student loan payments every month.

No easy answers

If there were easy solutions, we’d be implementing them.  I believe that we need a jobs program that will put people back to work rebuilding America’s infrastructure, such as repairing our crumbling roads, bridges, and public buildings and creating a first-class rail system.  But that’s only part of it. We’re paying the price for a lot of sins and mistakes right now, and we cannot undo all that in a short period of time.

As unemployment benefits run dry, fear escalates

Nick Carey, reporting for Reuters,tells the story of Deborah Coleman of Cincinnati, whose unemployment benefits expired in April. Coleman is struggling to keep afloat, and she also fears for others without jobs if Congress does not vote to extend support payments to the unemployed:

“It’s too late for me now,” she said, fighting back tears at the Freestore Foodbank in the low-income Over-the-Rhine district near downtown Cincinnati. “But it will be terrible for the people who’ll lose their benefits if Congress does nothing.”

For nearly two years, Coleman says she has filed an average of 30 job applications a day, but remains jobless.

…Coleman, 58, a former manager at a telecommunications firm, said the only jobs she found were over the Ohio state line in Kentucky, but she cannot reach them because her car has been repossessed and there is no bus service to those areas.

…”I’ve lost everything and I don’t know what will happen to me,” she said.

Desperation, sadness, tragedy

These tragedies are playing out across the country — individual stories of careers, livelihoods, and lives derailed by the Great Recession. Most of the jobless are looking for work, while dearly hoping that Congress extends unemployment benefits. As the Boston Globe‘s Robert Gavin reports:

“The vast majority of unemployed are hard-pressed to find a job, and the risks of not passing the extensions are too great,’’ said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pa. “It could reignite the foreclosure crisis, and if the economy swamps again, there is no response.’’

In the meantime, those who have lost benefits are clinging to the hope that they’ll find new jobs while wondering how they’ll pay mortgages, keep food on the table, or send children to college.

Indeed, the individual stories in the Globe piece capture one of the most bracing realities of the Great Recession: How folks who had every reason to believe that a willingness to work would pay the bills are now in desperate straits.

If you’re in D.C. on Friday…

This Friday, the Americans for Democratic Education Fund (on whose board I sit), will host a Congressional Briefing, “Women, Unemployment and the Great Recession,” at which representatives from the Women and Girls Foundation and Women’s Voices, Women Vote will present findings from recently released reports. U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), Chair of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee and newly-elected President of Americans for Democratic Action, will moderate the discussion. The event is free, and here’s the info:

Congressional Briefing: Women, Unemployment and the Great Recession

Date: Friday, July 16, 2010
Time: 11:00am – 12:00pm
Location: Rayburn House Office Building 2261

Please RSVP at (202)785-5980 or via email at or

Why the Healthy Workplace Bill is “HR-Friendly”

As reported earlier, the Society for Human Resource Management — the nation’s leading association for HR professionals — has advised its members to oppose the Healthy Workplace Bill, which would create a legal claim for those who have been subjected to malicious, health-harming psychological abuse at work.

Another view

The sad irony is that the Healthy Workplace Bill is actually quite HR-friendly, and here’s why:

Currently there are no general legal protections against severe workplace bullying for American workers.  This huge gap in the law means that managers who bully workers can leverage HR’s assistance in targeting another employee for mistreatment. At organizations rife with bullying, HR often becomes complicit in the abuse. Too many HR professionals become accomplices in bullying situations by doing management’s dirty work, such as firing a bullied worker as the final step of abuse. 

Passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill would help conscientious HR professionals oppose workplace bullying and refuse to take part in efforts to bully a target out of a job, promotion, or raise. The keys to this are two provisions of the bill that allow employers to sharply mitigate their liability exposure by acting preventively and responsively to bullying at work.

Acting preventively and responsively

The Healthy Workplace Bill holds employers strictly liable for bullying committed by any co-worker.  However, in situations where there has been no negative employment decision as part of the bullying (such as a termination, forced resignation, or demotion), an employer may escape liability if it can show that it acted preventively and responsively concerning the situation.

This gives HR ample ammunition to tell management to handle bullying situations fairly.  It also gives HR a shield against being dragged into assisting in the mistreatment.

Limited cap on damages

The Healthy Workplace Bill also has a provision that limits emotional distress damages to $25,000 in bullying situations where there has been no negative employment decision.  The reasoning behind this is that most severe bullying includes some sort of tangible job consequence. The cap on emotional distress damages — which form the “wild card” of many employment-related lawsuits — serves as an incentive to employers to address bullying situations before they become out of control and bullying targets lose their jobs.

The Healthy Workplace Bill empowers HR to refuse to engage in an illegal employment practice and to oppose bullying, on the ground that severe bullying accompanied by a negative employment decision can open up the employer to significant damages.  HR is put in a position to say stop this, unless you want to get hammered with a big lawsuit.

SHRM, time to rethink?

With that in mind, it appears that SHRM’s members are being ill-served when they are advised to oppose the Healthy Workplace Bill. SHRM members who abhor and oppose this destructive form of abuse may want to lobby their leadership to take a different position.

When “heart, will, and mind are on the same page”

For many years, University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been urging us to seek those elusive states of flow in our lives, those experiences when “heart, will, and mind are on the same page.”  They may involve “singing in a choir, programming a computer, dancing, playing bridge, [or] reading a good book.”  In these moments, “what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony.”

Ideally, we can achieve a state of flow through our work. What better combination than to be paid for work that brings us into such an engaged and harmonious place?

However, we know that work can be just that, a chore, a way to pay the bills. Even jobs with their flow-like elements may have considerable downsides, especially in organizations with unhealthy workplace cultures.

In the absence of that great job, where else can we pursue a state of flow? I have long championed the roles of meaningful, immersive avocations and hobbies. In good times, they can be the delicious icings on life’s cake. In hard times, they can be lifesavers, literally or figuratively.

So what brings that sense of flow into your life? In lieu of a flow chart (sorry), I’ll simply offer a few questions to ponder:

  • What activities bring you into that elusive mode of in-the-moment engagement?
  • When do you “lose yourself” in your work, avocations, or hobbies?
  • How can you create a greater state of flow in your life?

Most people may not spend much time pondering such things, but the answers may yield important directions for our lives and careers. I invite you to do so now.


Quoted materials in the first paragraph are from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (1997), pages 28-29.  (And by the way, his last name is pronounced “chick-SENT-me-high,” as the back cover of the book helpfully instructs.)


Related posts

The importance of hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times (2016)

With “encore careers” increasingly for the wealthy, avocations and hobbies should take center stage (2016)

What’s your hobby? (2015)

Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job (2015)

Our avocations and hobbies: The third pillar of work-life balance? (2012)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Related article

Jennie Bricker wrote about avocations in a 2015 piece for the Oregon State Bar Bulletin, “Poets, Tramps and Lawyers,” citing pieces in this blog.


This post was revised in July 2017.

Is a day of reckoning coming for higher education?

Most parents of college-age children will attest to the skyrocketing expense of a college education.  The cost of a bachelor’s degree at a private college can run some $200,000. And for those who graduated from good ol’ State U back in the day, be prepared for sticker shock when you look at tuition levels and expenses for many publicly supported colleges.

Since the 1980s, two steady trends have been (1) continuous increases in tuition at rates beyond inflation; and (2) loans supplanting grants as the primary form of financial aid. Students are now leaving college with debt levels once reserved for graduates of professional school programs that promised high salaries in return.

Still and all, it has remained a gospel truth that earning a bachelor’s degree is worth it.

Not so fast

Francesca DiMeglio, writing for Business Week, reports on the magazine’s study of the economic value of a bachelor’s degree:

If there’s one truism that goes virtually unchallenged these days, it’s that a college degree has great value. . . . Over the course of a working life, college graduates earn more than high school graduates. Over the past decade, research estimates have pegged that figure at $900,00, $1.2 million, and $1.6 million.

But new research suggests that the monetary value of a college degree may be vastly overblown. According to a study conducted by PayScale for Bloomberg Businessweek,the value of a college degree may be a lot closer to $400,000 over 30 years and varies wildly from school to school.

To accompany its study, the magazine has developed a ranking study for colleges and universities based on tuition levels and graduate earnings.  The study concludes that:

the number of schools that actually make good on the estimates of the earlier research is vanishingly small. There are only 17 schools in the study whose graduates can expect to recoup the cost of their education and out-earn a high school graduate by $1.2 million, including four where they can do so to the tune of $1.6 million.

Is it all about earnings?

I’m not crazy about evaluating institutions of higher learning solely on how much their graduates earn.  A college degree should be about more than vocational clout and salary levels.  Degrees in the liberal arts, for example, may not translate into the highest paying jobs, especially in the years immediately following graduation, but they provide an exposure to important ideas and ways of thinking.

Nevertheless, college costs are out of control, and I can’t blame Business Week (or any other periodical or organization) for questioning the costs and benefits and evaluating whether future earnings justify the price tag.

A day of reckoning?

I doubt that we’ll see hundreds of thousands of high school graduates suddenly abandoning their college plans anytime soon. And plenty of adults will continue to return to school to finish up a degree.  However, the marketplace of higher education is headed for a crash. Rising college costs are starting to look a lot like the American health care system: The status quo is unsustainable.

It is anyone’s guess as to what this shakeout will look like, but unless existing colleges and universities get their act together quickly, the fallout will not be pretty for them.


Go here for a related post, “Law schools and the legal job market.”

Law review essay on therapeutic jurisprudence and employment law

I’m happy to inform readers of the publication of a short law review essay, “Employment Law as if People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the Workplace,” which appears in a symposium issue of the Florida Coastal Law Review.

This is the published version of a piece I posted last year in draft form. Go here for a link to a pdf copy (no charge), and use the “one-click download” button. Here’s a brief abstract:

During the past 20 years, scholars and practitioners drawn to therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) have produced a substantial body of work, with mental health law, criminal law, family law, and legal education being focal points for examination under a TJ lens. Employment law, however, has been conspicuously underrepresented in TJ-inspired scholarly and law practice literature. This essay is built on the premise that employment law scholars and lawyers, as well as the public at large, would benefit by applying a TJ perspective to the law of the workplace, and it suggests some framing concepts drawn from psychology and related disciplines to guide future research, analysis, and practice. It also applies these ideas to the challenges of representing employees and employers, using workplace bullying as a specific scenario for discussion.

The essay grew out of my participation in a 2009 symposium on therapeutic jurisprudence hosted by Florida Coastal.  It was my first experience at a TJ event, and a delightful and stimulating one at that.

Charles Sullivan on courts and the “disgruntled” employee

Employers often like to label plaintiffs in employment lawsuits as being “disgruntled” workers.  It’s a handy, dismissive way to direct attention away from the actual claim of wrongdoing and toward the attitude of the employee.

Alas, it appears that courts are now buying into the code. At the always useful Workplace Prof blog, law professor Charles Sullivan (Seton Hall) writes about how courts increasingly are using the label in decisions concerning employment disputes.  He reports that his study (with assistance from Temi Kolarova) of judicial opinions:

revealed 1004 “disgruntled employees” in its Federal & State Cases database, as compared to 399 “dissatisfied” employees.  When it comes to customers or buyers, the usage flips — only 195 are disgruntled, with 593 dissatisfied.  And, if you’re wondering, there are almost no “disgruntled employers” (24). 

Charlie opines:

It’s not surprising that defense attorneys use terms with a negative connotation to describe their adversaries, but “disgruntled” is creeping into judicial opinions. . . . I don’t know if there’s any great significance to this usage, but it is disappointing that the courts adopt words with a negative connotation in employment disputes when they are much more neutral in other settings.

Let’s look at the judges

It has long been my belief that too many judges come from backgrounds of privilege and power that cause them to buy into existing hierarchies, and the employment relationship surely is one of them.  Serving as a judge only reinforces those attitudes. If we could construct a proper and fair survey, it likely would reveal a natural tendency of judges to identify with employers instead of with workers who complain of discrimination or some other form of mistreatment.


Go here for a related post on studies showing correlations between the race and sex of judges and decisions in discrimination claims:

Edward Adams, writing for the ABA Journal (membership magazine of the American Bar Association), reports on two studies documenting powerful correlations between the race and sex of judges and the results of federal employment discrimination claims.

New (unpaid) job title at CVS: Customer/cashier

One of my occasional stops on the walk from work to the subway is a CVS drugstore in downtown Boston.  Over the past few months, CVS has been installing more self-service checkout counters at this outlet, whereby the customers electronically ring up their purchases and provide payment, without the help of a cashier.  A CVS employee hovers around the self-service counters to help out the befuddled, such as me.

Recently I walked in the store and was stunned to see that most of the “regular” checkout counters had been replaced with the self-service variety.  At this CVS store, you’d better be prepared to check your own purchases, or possibly wait in a longer line for a human cashier.

From low-paying jobs to no jobs

For customers, this may be a hassle or inconvenience, but the most serious impact is the loss of jobs.  I’m guessing that those cashier jobs did not morph into other positions within the company — and even if they did, they’ll disappear via attrition. CVS isn’t doing this out of a love of gadgetry: Automating the cashier position means you can cut payroll.

During the past four decades, America has lost countless of its higher-paying jobs in the manufacturing and construction sectors.  However, one of the primary growth areas of the labor market has been low-paying retail sector work.  Now we’re seeing how even those jobs can be rendered obsolete, or at least less necessary.

Indeed, when we customers serve as our own cashiers, we become involuntary accomplices to eliminating yet another route to employment.  And while these may not be the greatest jobs in the world, they are sources of income, especially for younger workers entering the workforce and workers of all ages who may lack advanced training and skills.

Is your workplace psychologically and ethically healthy?

Is your workplace a beacon of psychological health, or do employees experience the Sunday night dreads over the coming week? Is there a sense that it is run with integrity and transparency, or are folks waiting for (maybe hoping for) some investigation or even indictment?

I periodically post questions that help us determine the psychological well-being and ethical culture of a given workplace, often drawing upon experts in employment relations, organizational behavior, and psychology. I’ve collected some of them here, with links to the original posts.  Read ’em and cheer…or weep:

1.  The New Workplace Institute’s “Eightfold Path” toward a psychologically healthy workplace:

  1. Is there a sense of zest, “buzz,” and opportunity in the workplace?
  2. Do employees feel they are valued and treated with respect and dignity?
  3. Is the organizational culture friendly, inclusive, and supportive?
  4. Is organizational decision making fair, transparent, and evenhanded?
  5. Are diversities of all types welcomed and accepted?
  6. Does the organization face tough questions concerning employee relations?
  7. Are allegations of mistreatment of employees handled fairly and honestly, even when the alleged wrongdoers are in positions of power?
  8. Are compensation and reward systems fair and transparent?

2.  From the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, how does your workplace stack up based on these criteria?

Every year, the APA recognizes North American employers who excel in these five categories:

  • “Employee involvement”
  • “Work-life balance”
  • “Employee growth & development”
  • “Health & safety”
  • “Employee recognition”

3.  From psychologists Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks, what kind of workplace culture do you have?

Hartling and Sparks note that a healthy “relational” culture is one that values “growth-fostering relationships, mutual empathy, mutuality, [and] authenticity,” creating qualities of “zest, empowerment, clarity, sense of worth, and a desire for more connection.”

By contrast, they identify three types of “non-relational” cultures that hurt morale and productivity:

(1) “traditional hierarchical” cultures that emphasize top-down power;
(2) “pseudo-relational” cultures that value superficial “niceness” over constructive change; and,
(3) brute “survival” cultures that pit everyone against one another in the quest for status and institutional spoils.

4.  From Chief People Officer Kevin Kennemer, questions about willingness to mistreat employees:

  • Does your company employ leaders and/or employees who lack that strong inner conscience to resist  shocking behavior?
  • Do you think your coworkers are capable of inhumane treatment?
  • Do psychologically abused employees find themselves stranded and secluded from their coworkers?
  • What do you do if you see an employee being psychologically abused by a supervisor?

5.  From business ethics & law professor Marianne Jennings, does your workplace exhibit any of the “seven signs of ethical collapse”?

  • Pressure to maintain numbers
  • Fear and silence
  • Larger than life CEO
  • Weak board of directors
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Innovation trumping any other priority, such as ethics
  • Belief that goodness in some areas atones for wrongdoing in others

6.  From writer and organizational consultant Art Kleiner, who are the core groups in your workplace?

If you want to understand how an organization includes or excludes, identifying the core group is a vital first step.  Examine the core group members in terms of demographics.  Look at the inclusionary or exclusionary practices of those within the core group.  You’ll get a lot of answers about the culture of a particular workplace or institution, along with some insights about what is required to achieve positive change.

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