Given how employers are likely to act in response to the economic downturn, many of those now laid off may well remain unemployed for a prolonged period. In particular, companies eager to hold down payroll costs will hesitate to hire back older and more experienced workers. They are likely to be left behind and remain in a jobless limbo long after the economy has picked up again.
Meanwhile, the old stigmas against unemployed workers will resurface, as memories of the initial crisis fade and people find new reasons to fault others for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Even today, we see hints of what is to come. Some of the country’s most prominent conservative ideologues are already complaining about how Congress’s top-up of unemployment benefits encourages people to drop out of the workforce.
This resentment will become much more widespread and pernicious. Here, again, history is instructive. Even during the Great Depression, a global economic catastrophe that catapulted the U.S. unemployment rate to about 25 percent, resentment grew as the doldrums persisted. As the sociologists Katherine Newman and Elisabeth Jacobs have noted, critics of the Roosevelt administration excoriated the long-term unemployed as malingerers and reprobates and assailed New Deal programs as socialist schemes to tax the middle class into poverty. Eight decades later, a Wall Street–led financial contagion pushed the unemployment rate to 10 percent. This time, the rancor coalesced more quickly, fed by a steady drumbeat of rage from cable news, talk radio, and, eventually, the Tea Party.