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A Miserable Job Market Leads Many To Stop Looking

Job seekers wait in line to meet with recruiters during a job fair in San Mateo, Calif.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Job seekers wait in line to meet with recruiters during a job fair in San Mateo, Calif.

The official unemployment rate, the headline number that comes out every month, was 9.1 percent in May. It measures how many people are out of work and looking for a job.

Then there's the U-6, which is technically the broadest measure of unemployment. It includes people who are underemployed — meaning they want more work — and people who have stopped looking; perhaps they've decided to go back to school or they've just given up their quest for work. That rate is 15.8 percent.

The people who keep track of this are at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Thomas Nardone, an assistant commissioner there, describes one subset of this number as discouraged workers.

"Discouraged workers are people who have looked sometime in the prior 12 months, and the reason they are not currently looking is because they think there are no jobs available or no jobs available for which they would qualify," he says.

'Disappearing Into The Woodwork'

Philip Starr, the executive director of the Hollywood WorkSource Center, puts it this way: "I find that what happens to people is they stay optimistic and encouraged and they keep looking. When they become discouraged, they just sort of disappear."

Starr's organization is a one-stop career center funded by the City of Los Angeles through the U.S. Labor Department. The center, which helps connect people who are unemployed to the job market, sees hundreds of unemployed people a day.

Starr has been doing this work for more than 20 years. He sees what happens to "discouraged workers."

"They don't participate actively," he says. "They're not coming into the center anymore. Discouraged people kind of disappear into the woodwork."

Brooke Harris, 39, taught preschool for 16 years.

She also has a B.A. and is close to a master's. She has a certificate in early childhood education, and she can't find a job. She's been looking since August, but there were about eight weeks when she became one of those discouraged workers.

"I got very discouraged looking for work," she says. "The jobs that were available were minimum wage at best and very few hours, no benefits. ... It was ridiculous."

High Aspirations

Ed Leamer, director of the UCLA Anderson Forecast and a professor of economics and statistics, clarifies why some job seekers stop looking.

"I think a lot of people have high aspirations for themselves," he says. "They've got an education; they have work skills. And often, the particular skills that they have to offer are not the ones that are in demand anymore. Then, slowly over time, the aspirations fall. Some people will just give up, but others will accept jobs that are below what they expected to get."

Though she was one of those hundreds of thousands of discouraged workers, hope returned for Harris. She has a job interview at a preschool.

"I hope it's a good school with a good philosophy, and I hope they like me and I like them," she says. "And I hope they offer benefits, and it's a good fit. Really, I just hope it's a good fit."

So, as she moves from discouraged worker to merely unemployed, the numbers tell yet another story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Gregory is a senior editor for NPR's Arts Desk, where she oversees coverage of film across the network and edits and and assigns stories on television, art, design, fashion, food, and culture.