The Fed announced the obvious last week. They told us we're on a slow path of recovery and that the recession may be declared over this quarter based upon the fact that current economic indicators are a little less pathetic than they were last summer. But, they also told us the unemployment rate ain't coming down any time soon. In fact, expect the U.S. to crest above the 10% rate some time in the next few months as we're currently at 9.7% nationally. And, in my backyard (California), be prepared for a lucky 13% unemployment rate by year-end. When you factor in people who are no longer full-time or are now earning substantially less in a new job, nearly one in five Californians are "underemployed" or unemployed.
I don't know about you, but a jobless recovery seems pretty joyless to me. Earlier this decade, economists were telling Americans that we were experiencing a boom, yet a large percentage of us were still raiding the cookie jar (our home equity) to pay the bills. I'm wondering whether there's a growing disconnect between how we define macro-prosperity with how it shows up in our micro-lives and what kind of psychological damage that does to us along the way.
A couple of weeks ago I tipped a few beers back with an unemployed, old friend who lamented the fact he was in a "sexless marriage." Given my natural proclivity toward being a shrink, I inquired a little more without getting into the juicy -- or not so juicy -- details. As it turns out, this poor fellow wasn't as sexless as he proclaimed. In reality, he and his wife had a once a month date night in which they renewed their wedding vows but, from his perspective, their sex life had become as predictable as the depressing monthly unemployment figures. But, the light bulb turned on for me when I asked him why he calls their marriage sexless when, in fact, it isn't. He told me that two of his best male friends had recently gotten divorced from their wives and were living life in the sexual fast lane with all kinds of hedonistic stories to share. My buddy wailed, "I used to be so focused on keeping up with the Joneses with my conspicuous consumption. I lost that game. Now, I'm jobless and sexless. I feel like a failure. The only thing I can do well is to drink beer."
We don't like to admit it, but our definition of success has an awful lot to do with positional consumption - how we compare ourselves with others. Our national shrink-in-chief Dr. Obama might want to consider the cognitive dissonance he and the Fed are unleashing on the country when they tell us we're doing better, yet we see the ranks of the unemployed swelling further. While we hear this is a pretty severe recession, many industries (like the one I'm in -- hospitality) are clearly having depression-like symptoms. Whether it's a recession or a depression, it's leading to the Great Repression. One of the dictionary definitions of "repression" is "the classical defense mechanism that protects you from impulses or ideas that would cause anxiety by preventing them from becoming conscious." My buddy is doing his best to stay unconscious about his jobless recovery and his sexless marriage and he's doing it by drinking more. In fact, this summer the Gallup organization reported that alcohol -- especially beer -- is one of the few consumer products that has held its own in this downturn. As a guy who owns hotels, restaurants, spas, and bars, I can tell you that our bars are the only one of those four types of hospitality businesses that have seen little disruption in their year-over-year revenues.
So, the next time Ben Bernanke tells us that we're on the road to recovery just know that he's sending a few more people into recovery in the near future once they realize the beer isn't solving their confusion of why their personal financial situation isn't mirroring what they're hearing on TV.
Chip Conley is the Founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality and the author of PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo From Maslow.
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