Disposable Worker Syndrome is Killing Us
An Antidote to Disposable Worker Syndrome: The "No Fire" Policy

The Elephant in the Room: The Main Reason You're Still Unemployed

As a lot of my work recently has been with people who are unemployed, I have a ton of articles coming through my feeds on job search, unemployment, etc. Most of them are about "personal branding" and "building your network," how to manage your social media presence, write a great LinkedIn profile and navigate ever-more confusing and time-consuming online applicant tracking systems. 

This morning, I ran across one that lists 18 Reasons Why You're Still Unemployed. These include being pierced, tattooed, angry, depressed, interviewing poorly--the list goes on. All of this, of course, suggests that the reasons for your unemployment lie somewhere in YOU. YOU need to do something to fix all of these flaws and once you do, then (presumably) a new job will be waiting for you. 

I have a secret for you though. You could fix every single flaw on this list--including re-training for another career and magically erasing the depression and anger that pretty much go with the territory of unemployment--and you could STILL be unemployed. Do you know why?

Because there are 3.3 job seekers for every job opening. 

I'm going to repeat that. 

There are 3.3 job seekers for every job opening. 

That's on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Depending on where you're looking for work and the kind of work you're seeking, the numbers can be even worse. 

It's kind of like playing musical chairs with three people walking around a single chair. When the music ends, only one of them will be able to sit down. And no matter how awesome the other two may be, through no fault of their own, they will still be sitting on the floor. 

This is the elephant in the room we're not really discussing. We're all so busy looking at what we can personally control (like our "personal brand" and endlessly re-writing our resumes) that we've completely lost touch with a fundamental reality. 

There are not enough jobs to go around. 

Why does this matter? 

Well if you're unemployed, it matters a lot. It gets old feeling like you've done everything you can and still you're having no luck landing a job. And then when you feel angry or depressed about it, people admonish you to "have a better attitude."  Worse, they will argue that it's your "bad attitude" that keeps you from finding something new!

What about people who have a job? Well this should matter to you too, because this trend of fewer jobs for more people is going to continue, and probably accelerate. See this and this to get an idea of how technology is impacting jobs. Then read this Business Week article on the disposable worker to see how that dynamic is intersecting with technology. You may be safe for now, but that may not last forever. And if you're one of the lucky few who doesn't have to deal with this reality, you are still going to have a spouse, child, parent, or friend who does. At some point, we are all going to be dealing with unemployment, many of us more than once. 

I think we're doing tons of damage to people by continuing to peddle this story that it's individual shortcomings and flaws that explain long-term and/or frequent unemployment. Yes, we can all do a better job of job searching. Yes, people still continue to find jobs in this economy.  But focusing on individual flaws keeps us all from discussing the bigger problem--that there aren't enough jobs for everyone who wants one. 

So let's stop putting all of our energy into figuring out how to "brand" ourselves so that we can compete for the limited pool of jobs that are available. And let's stop acting like the unemployed are lepers who somehow deserve their fate because they didn't create a great LinkedIn profile or keep their skills updated. 

Instead, let's turn to discussing what we're going to do about the fact that the pool of available jobs is shrinking and the real crisis is not about personal branding. It's about needing more jobs. 

And let's quit telling the unemployed that it's their fault they can't find work. Believe me, if there were tons of jobs that needed doing, then employers would be a lot less picky. Your tattos and piercings and lack of a social media profile wouldn't get in the way of needing to get some work done. 

It's simple math. So let's start dealing with that. 


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Thanks for this post. So much onus has been put on individuals for the reasons they're unemployed: many of the issues you mention, as well as my (least) favorite -- the "skills gap."

The real issue, as you note, is structural: there are just not enough jobs to go around. It is amazing to me that corporations have rebounded from the Great Recession with large profits and tremendous cash reserves, but so many people still struggle to just get by.

The question is "what do we do about it?" Clearly, government and big business isn't stepping up to the plate. They continue to posture on old issues. Who steps up, and how?


Glad to hear this resonated, Scott. It's been an ongoing frustration for me, actually, in my work with many of the government agencies that serve people who are unemployed. And thanks for the shout-out to the ""skills gap." I think I'm going to do a separate post just dealing with that tired story.

RE: What do we do about it---I think we have to start by pushing back on these stories and not buying into the idea that it's all about job seeker gaps. Part of what keeps us from even discussing solutions is because we sit around thinking "Yeah, people aren't getting jobs because they aren't doing something right. But I'm doing all the right things, so I'll be OK." Which is clearly untrue, but feels safe to most of us.

I don't have any easy answers, but feel like we have been engaged in addressing the wrong problem. I'd love to convene national conversations about this to try and problem solve, rather than pretending that the problem is simply about poorly prepared job seekers.

I've changed jobs four times in the past four years--one layoff, one contract ending, and two really bad fits. Each time it took several months, though I worked hard to get employed again. Every time I had an unsuccessful interview friends would say, "How could they not want you? You're such a great employee!" I had to say over and over again, "I have no idea who else was interviewing!" The only way I avoided debilitating depression was to keep telling myself, "This is not about me." Yesterday I learned that after my last interview (where I'm now very happily employed) someone on the panel said, "She's the one." Finally I fit the best, and it simply showed up in the interview. That's all it was about. Yeah, it's tough, but your message is right on. We have got to stop stigmatizing the unemployed.

Jeri--glad to hear that you've finally found a position that works for you. I think it's very hard to not start to take it personally, so kudos to you for being able to keep saying, "this is not about me." What I think is particularly difficult is finding that it's a process that you have to go through repeatedly as we have less and less stability in our work.

Thanks for sharing your story!

Thank you for posting this. We moved a year ago for my dream job. We're in a tech city and thought my husband would have no problem finding work. It's been a year now of applications and only one phone interview. It's discouraging. The statistic cited is also a little off in that it does not count folks like my husband who do not qualify for unemployment and so are officially off the government radar. I suspect the number is a lot higher. Which goes back to your newer post. If a job sucks do you muddle through? It's an employers market and they know it. I don't have enough hours to write about that!

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