So much has been said and written in recent years about the plight of the unemployed that anyone with a job ought to be walking around thanking their stars. But according to a Rutgers research study based on surveys of more than 25,000 employed and unemployed workers, many of those people still lucky enough to march off to work every morning are not so optimistic about either their economic security or job future.
Carl E. Van Horn, the founding director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development that conducted the national 15-year Work Trends survey, has written a book summarizing the bleak findings: “Working Scared (Or Not At All): The Lost Decade, Great Recession, and Restoring the Shattered American Dream.”
Van Horn, who was appointed to the state’s Council of Economic Advisors by Governor Chris Christie in 2010, will appear at a moderated conversation, Q&A session, and book signing on Wednesday, April 3, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, Roosevelt-Perkins Room (second floor), 30 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. The event is free but seating is limited and registration is required by Friday, March 29. Visit heldrich.rutgers.edu to register.
As Van Horn notes, the American economy was a job-producing marvel at the end of the 20th century, but the first decade of the 21st century has been entirely different. “If full labor market health does not return for five years,” he says, “American workers will have endured an entire lost decade of high unemployment, stagnant or declining incomes, and anxiety.”
Even older workers who have survived rounds of downsizings and layoffs still are anxious about their futures. And with good reason, Van Horn writes: “Further clouding the retirement outlook is the fact that millions of workers who could afford to set aside funds for their retirement did not save enough during the late 1990s and 2000s. They may have believed financial experts who advised them that home ownership was a secure investment. But the collapse of real estate values and fluctuating stock prices in the 2001-2002 and 2008-2012 periods reduced retirement accounts for millions of middle class workers . . .
“Despite federal laws meant to safeguard worker contributions and pension benefits, the values of so-called guaranteed pensions have either declined or disappeared because of mergers, restructuring, and bankruptcies. Less than half of those working have any form of employer-sponsored retirement plan.”
The pressures on those nearing retirement has ripple effects through the entire workforce. As Van Horn points out, “for decades demographers predicted that the huge baby-boom population would stop working fulltime as soon as they reached the traditional retirement age of 65, if not sooner. Middle-aged workers assumed that retiring colleagues would open paths to enhanced career opportunities. The mass exodus of aging boomers was supposed to create a bonanza of job openings for young workers graduating from high schools and colleges.” The findings in the book are based on nearly 30 random surveys conducted from 1998 to 2012 of people age 18 or older, working full or parttime, or unemployed but seeking work.
Van Horn, who earned his BA in political science and sociology from Pitt and his PhD in political science and public policy from Ohio State, suggests a four-part plan to revitalize the American workforce: Reform education to prepare all students for career; expand learning opportunities for workers throughout their careers; replace unemployment insurance with reemployment insurance that would encourage laid off workers to enroll in skills training programs; and establish a worker-employer compact that builds trust between workers and employers and encourages companies to view employees as assets rather than disposable costs.
Such a transformation in U.S. labor market policies won’t happen overnight, Van Horn writes. “Cobbled together through decades of hyper-partisanship,” those policies “are like a house built by two carpenters who hate each other and are put in charge of construction on alternating weeks.” Concludes Van Horn: “American workers need help, and they are ready for big policy changes. Will our nation’s business, government, education, and community leaders rededicate themselves to embracing these principles and restoring the American dream for all Americans?”