Most worrying, if high unemployment persists it could start to feed upon itself. Right now, unemployment is mainly the result of what economists call cyclical factors: during the recession, demand plummeted, and during the recovery consumer spending, government stimulus, and exports haven’t been sufficient to make up the difference. But if high long-term unemployment continues there’s a danger that, sooner or later, cyclical unemployment could become structural unemployment—that is, unemployment that won’t go away once the good times return. The longer people are unemployed, the harder it is for them to find a job (even after you control for skills, education, and so on). Being out of a job can erode people’s confidence and their sense of possibility; and employers, often unfairly, tend to take long-term unemployment as a signal that something is wrong. A more insidious factor is that long-term unemployment can start to erode job skills, making people less employable. One extraordinary study of Swedish workers, for instance, found that there was a strong correlation between time out of work and declining skills: workers who had been out of work for a year saw their relative ability to do something as simple as process and use printed information drop by five percentile points.
The phenomenon in which a sizable chunk of the workforce gets stuck in place, and in effect becomes permanently unemployed, is known by economists as hysteresis in the job market. This is, arguably, what happened to many European countries in the nineteen-eighties—policymakers did little when joblessness soared, and their economies got stuck, leaving them with seemingly permanent unemployment rates of eight or nine per cent. The good news is that there’s not much evidence that hysteresis has set in here yet. The bad news is that we can ride our luck only for so long. If the ranks of America’s long-term jobless don’t start shrinking soon, it’s less likely that they ever will, and we’ll be looking at a new “natural” unemployment rate for the U.S. economy. This economy would be less productive as a whole (since there would be fewer workers), meaning that everyone would be less well off.