Disposable Workers: Layoffs and Their Consequences

Multinational Monitor, July-August 2006 | Go to article overview

Disposable Workers: Layoffs and Their Consequences


An Interview with Louis Uchitelle

Louis Uchitelle is the author of The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences. He is a reporter with the New York Times, where he writes about business, labor and economics. He was the lead reporter for the Times series "The Downsizing of America," which won a George Polk Award in 1996. He has taught at Columbia University and was a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York in 2002-2003.

Multinational Monitor: What is Who Moved My Cheese?

Louis Uchitelle: Who Moved My Cheese? is a best-selling book that is often distributed to people who have been laid off. The idea is to encourage them to go out and look for work. The book is the story of two mice and two men who are always supplied with cheese. One day the cheese disappeared. The mice went out and looked for another supply of cheese and found it. The two humans held back, but eventually they went out, found the cheese and got back to meaningful lives. The message is to take responsibility for yourself. Layoffs are your problem, mister, not society's. You can solve it on your own and save yourself.

MM: How many layoffs are there annually in the United States?

Uchitelle: If you take full-time workers--about 100 million people--about 4 percent are laid off every two years. Those are just the official layoffs as compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

If you add in the hidden layoffs--the people who are forced into early-retirement as an alternative to being pushed out, or for one reason or another feel forced to leave their jobs--then you may get up towards 7 percent of all full-time workers. Instead of four million, that's seven million biennially. That's a lot of people. And it should alarm people that we have a set of statistics in America that play down the layoff problem.

MM: How long does it take the typical laid off person to get a new job, and how does the new job generally compare to the old one?

Uchitelle: About a third of people who are laid off drop out. About a third of people find jobs that, two years after their layoffs, pay 15 to 20 percent less than the jobs that they had before. About a third end up in jobs that, two years later, pay the same or more than they had earned before. The overwhelming evidence is that men and women who are laid off can get back into the work force, but usually at wages below what they earned before, and usually in jobs that aren't as skilled as the ones they had before. In other words, they are working beneath their skills.

MM: What does it mean when you say "drop out?"

Uchitelle: It means they stop looking for work. Maybe they take an early pension, maybe they live on savings, maybe a spouse works and they don't. They are neither employed nor actively unemployed and looking for work, which would qualify them as unemployed.

MM: If you are laid off, why can't you get a job that's as good as the one you just lost?

Uchitelle: This is one of the great myths we have. People blame themselves for their own layoffs and we reinforce that as a nation. We say to people, "No problem, just get yourself retrained or re-educated for the very good jobs that are out there and that are unfilled." So people go through this re-training very often and then they don't get those good jobs. Then we as a society blame them for not getting the right re-training and the right re-education. They bear the responsibility.

The fact of the matter, and it is very evident in the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, is that the number of well-paying unfilled jobs is less than the demand for them. So you have situations where more than 30 percent of all flight attendants have bachelor's degrees, when that's not work that requires a bachelor's degree. In any number of professions, you find that people are over-educated, because they can't get work commensurate with their education and skills. …

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