As many unemployed Americans have faced their unemployment insurance benefits being cut over the past few weeks, questions are arising as to why the unemployment numbers seem to be declining, yet polls indicate that Americans remain deeply worried about unemployment.
Contributing to this disparity could be the fact that the unemployment numbers overlook many people, such as those who are underemployed. These numbers also ignore those who have not been a part of the job market for a while, but are seeking to rejoin. The debate over unemployment insurance benefits will be reigniting this week.
We ask a lot of questions and make many assumptions when talking about unemployment in the United States. However, we rarely ask what has caused America's joblessness crisis and what can be done.
2008 was not simply about markets crashing, industries going extinct and a fundamental shift in our economic system. It led to the exposure of a problem that has been boiling under the surface for years: America has a joblessness crisis.
The crisis hits those young and old, primarily those who are under-skilled.
Our youngest generation able to work, the millennials, finds themselves often armed with little skill to find work. You would be surprised how many under the age of 30 can text and play mobile games with the best of them, but do not know how to find work in an online world. Worldwide, over 75 million millennials find themselves out of work, leading to social issues arising in the both the developed and developing worlds.
On the other end of the spectrum, a generation that on the surface was set to retire faces the prospect of staying in the workforce or re-entering. Many do not have the requisite skill set to compete for today's jobs. Workers with 30 plus years of experience under their belts, who because they may have never had to use the Internet before, find themselves without the proper tools to find even a minimum wage job. While speaking about a jobs tool at an AARP event a few months back, many of the over 1,000 attendees over the age of 50 who were seeking jobs approached the panelists afterwards. What struck me was not the questions that were asked by these eager jobseekers, but the comments that these people made.
One person thanked me for looking them in the eye and giving them respect by listening, because no one else had while she had spent two years looking for work after a 30-year career, bouncing from government agency to government agency.
Another woman said that she has sought to learn the "networks" before, but it seemed no one had the time or patience to teach her how to use the Internet, which she knew was necessary to find employment today.
Most stark in my memory, one gentleman quietly leaned over the table I was sitting at and whispered, "It would just be nice to get my dignity back, you know?"
America's joblessness crisis is also starting to manifest itself through the apparent economic stratification that has been caused in geographic areas where industries requiring highly skilled workers, such as the technology industry, have led to areas where people who create software are making salaries that exceed six figures while living next to people who have no clue how to use the Internet or their software and cannot even manage to make a living wage.
The Internet has demonstrated the ability to open up so much to so many. Yet, it has also created a new set of skills that must be mastered to, at a baseline, just survive in our world.
This is what has led the battle cry behind efforts to teach students computer science and, specifically, how to code. These initiatives will hopefully prove vital to ensuring that, in the least, today's children are not leaving high school without a rudimentary set of skills to survive and prosper in what has decidedly become an online world. Yet again, what of those who are no longer within the reach of our K-12 school systems or perhaps never were at all?
It is easy to retreat to rhetoric when it comes to talking about those who are unemployed. This rhetoric is not new, but perhaps it is amplified by those who have chosen to "accidentally" vilify themselves in discussing these socioeconomic issues. Nearly every major newspaper and technology trade has had some commentary discussing the disparities between the technology nouveau riche and the everyman in metropolitan areas in the United States. We can talk about "pulling one's self up by one's bootstraps." Instead of taking action, we fall back on, "They're too lazy, they should just get a job."
It is that laziness in thought that has contributed to this crisis.
What can we do? We can recognize what is and what is not working in terms of services that help the unemployed find work. For many, the bureaucracies of the agencies and offices who find this within their mandate prohibit the innovation and pragmatism needed to address some of the major underlying issues. We need to look to alternatives, perhaps other public institutions, such as our schools and the one institution that is a place of discovery and openness for all in every community, the public libraries, to offer more services to skill up our population.
Jobseekers line up at libraries, waiting up to three hours or more for device and Internet access. Many unemployed parents find themselves at their children's schools on a daily basis. We should once again embrace "adult education," and redefine it, to ensure that both the 22-year-old millennial and the 62-year-old Boomer are both able to gain the skills necessary to look for work like the rest of us.
This is but one perspective on what is perhaps one of the most important issues of our times. This perspective is as a pupil to those users who my own team has humbly sought to teach through technology even something that seems simple, but is so important, such as how to use the Internet. The irony is that while it can be prolific, technology cannot solve everything. Empathy and humanity are also required.
Industrial evolution is inevitable. New tools, skills and knowledge must be learned as times change. It also requires that we evolve our social fabric to ensure a populace ready and able to succeed meets the progress of our industries.