I wake up to NPR in the morning. While I love NPR, I’ve realized that I must stop listening to it first thing. Every morning I hear something along these lines: “Dow Jones closed down 100 points yesterday. It’s down 30 points right now. The recession is alive and well! Consumers are scared!” Well, of course we’re scared. The media tells us every day to be scared.
Even before the economy was in recession, every day brought reports that like this: “Is a recession coming? It looks like a recession is coming. Experts think we’re headed for recession! Recession is coming! Recession is coming! What will we do?” Then, several months down the road: “Data for the last quarter show that the country is in recession.” Well, of course! Even if the faltering and failing banks didn’t mean recession, the constant barrage about how “we might be headed for recession” was enough to have every consumer tightening their belts, which means what? Recession. I don’t mean to imply that the media is responsible for the recession. Obviously that is not the case. However, I do think that less repetition of bad news would be a good thing, in that it would give consumers a little space to feel confident again.
I confess that all this talk about banks collapsing and the domino effect and “The economy hasn’t been this bad since the Great Depression” had me going. It had me terrified and paralyzed, in fact. It had me convinced that I should sit tight and hang on to my job even though I haven’t been challenged by it and had been considering seeking a different one. I nearly had a panic attack when my car needed repairs, because that meant taking money from my emergency fund to fix it, and I might need that emergency fund down the road if I lost my job. I became convinced that the entire economy would tank and I’d end up living in a Hooverville shack with 10 other 30-somethings, scraping by on raw onions and grass.
But then I decided it was time for perspective. Most economists consider our economy at full employment when the unemployment rate is about 5%. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment was at 7.6% for January 2009. While that cannot be considered a good thing, neither is it worthy of all-out panic. We really are not so terribly far from full employment. In saying that, I am not saying that I view that 2.6% lightly — I know that it represents a lot of lost jobs, and it’s incredibly difficult for the affected communities. I also acknowledge that a person will view the situation differently depending on their current status in life. Someone who has a family and owns a house, for example, will feel much more pressure than I do, as I have neither. Someone who owns a small business that is struggling will feel even more pressure. But the average person among us needn’t panic.
Several European countries regularly sustain higher unemployment rates and still manage to be highly productive, stable societies. While I don’t think that we necessarily need to aspire to their model, I do find the knowledge that there are different models of success comforting. And while the job loss numbers are scary, and actually losing your job is even more so (I know, I’ve just been given notice at my own), I still have faith in our collective ability to work through this. There is no single way or right answer, but as long as everyone is trying to be productive, I believe that the economy will improve. For some, being productive will simply mean finding a different job, for some it will mean changing fields, for some it will mean seeking training to learn new skills. For still others, it could mean doing volunteer work while between jobs. But for everyone, it means working on something.