Monday, September 14, 2009

My Take: The Rebounding Economy?

As I waited on line at my favorite coffee spot, I spied the headline in the Wall Street Journal: “Economic Confidence Rebounds.” Since I hadn’t read the paper in about a week, I happily plunked down $2 for the weekend edition – just to see what magic had occurred. I was hoping that I missed something that would make me feel better.

But reading the article was like finding you were in the drug study group that was given the placebo. I should have guessed this was the case since it seems every person I know, regardless of age or experience has stress, anxiety and bad feelings about their jobs, their lack of jobs or what will happen to them. Those out of work feel increasingly desperate and those who have jobs know they should feel lucky, but the stress and fear in their day-to-day lives takes an awful toll.

For the most part, conversations about work are like jabbing a hard thumb into an aching black and blue mark. The unemployed feel angry, cheated, frightened, overlooked, discounted and totally ill prepared to deal with what’s happening. Nothing in their lives, or their parents’ lives have prepared them for this scenario. As they try to hold on, the look in their eyes shows the truth – they don’t see any rebounding economy. Most are grateful if a submitted resume gets a response. Even that is rare to come by, despite years of solid experience, advanced education, years of paying their dues or playing the game. Holding on to one’s sanity and self-esteem are at stake.

The “lucky” employed among us also suffer. Often their life’s work has less meaning; it was torn out a long time ago as they’ve survived firings, mismanagement and the increasing stress and anxiety that comes with the workplace terrain: colleagues being axed routinely for no reason and clients disappearing. The employed know they “should” be grateful to have jobs, but they often face hell daily. In the new economic order they are expected to do the job of 2 or 3 people, for only part of a week or for less pay – or perhaps for 12-14 hour days with no raises and the threat of job loss if they don’t deliver what their unreasonable employers request.

Barely a week ago, the NY Times acknowledged in a cover story that the unemployment numbers are deceiving. It was not news to me that most of the long term unemployed (those who have given up looking for a job, no longer get unemployment benefits, answer every want ad or job posting to be found and never even get an acknowledgment) are not even counted. If the government really wants to know what’s going on, surely the IRS databases have the true story: the numbers of W-2 employees, wages and hours. Why is this vast resource not tapped for a reality check?

As you may have guessed, the Wall Street Journal report that consumer optimism is rising did not make me feel better. The only place I get the impression that things are better is in business headlines. For example, when I read that U.S. Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner declares a “victory” over the financial crisis – by virtue of payback of the financial bailout funds, I mostly wondered what he was drinking or thinking. I didn’t feel encouraged.

Many people don’t allow themselves to believe that we’ve not hit bottom, because we are unprepared and frightened. Many are already facing this reality – and these faux reality reports are in the same category as “reality tv.” Exactly what's real about it?

This concerns me because for many Americans, busy-ness and shopping have been the addictions of choice to numb us from some tough realities. When funds are scarce, we may get back to basics, home cooking and more quality family time, but our stress levels may soar as we navigate the obligations and responsibilities that we took on when times were flush. Until our expectations and economic reality are in sync with this new financial reality, no rosy headline will make me believe that an end to the tough times is at hand.

The good news, and I mean this sincerely, is that we Americans are a pioneering bunch. I am confident that one way or another, we will brave this new frontier. But placating the masses with statements like “there is a general feeling that the worst is behind us” are not helpful when they are based on the opinions of forecasters and not the underlying statistics or trends. Rather than learning that the government gets good marks for “handling” the crisis, I’d rather see a survey that says American employers are hiring more workers, paying more wages, increasing production, increasing sales and investing in R& D or new equipment. Then I will believe we are “recovering.”

But the fact that banks with overpaid executives paid back their loans on time, that corporate misdeeds are being looked into, that unemployment is not rising faster than it could be rising – well these sound bites don’t sound like recovery to me. Especially not when most people I know are either working desperately hard to afford their lives and obligations or figuring out how to make their savings last until they can get back to earning money.

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