Believers in the structural argument refer to something called the Beveridge Curve, which measures the historical relationship between job vacancies and unemployment. They argue that the curve currently shows more job openings than there should be, given the current unemployment rate—implying that businesses are having a hard time finding qualified workers. But a careful analysis of Beveridge Curve data by two economists at the Cleveland Federal Reserve shows that it’s behaving much the way it has in previous recessions: there are as few job vacancies as you’d expect, given how desperate people are for work. The percentage of small businesses with so-called “hard-to-fill” job vacancies is near a twenty-five-year low, and open jobs are being filled quickly. And one recent study showed that companies’ “recruiting intensity” has dropped sharply, probably because the fall-off in demand means that they don’t have a pressing need for new workers.
Don’t expect the structural argument to go away, though. It’s a perennial: nearly every recession leads pundits to proclaim that the job market is facing structural challenges, and that higher unemployment is here to stay. During the 1981-82 recession, now seen as a classic cyclical recession, the economist Barry Bluestone warned that, as a result of structural issues, there might not be “much recovery in terms of overall employment in the United States.” Yet, by 1984, unemployment was back to where it had been before recession hit. A 1964 survey of economists found that more than half believed structural issues were playing a significant role in limiting the number of jobs; three years later, unemployment was below four per cent. And, during the Great Depression, even F.D.R. thought that unemployment might well be stuck at a permanently higher level. Recessions are, among other things, crises of confidence, and one manifestation of lack of confidence is the conviction that this time we’re not going to be able to climb our way out.