The Lookout

Average length of unemployment now at 60-year high

Zachary Roth
The Lookout

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Tera Burbank and John Clark had been out of work over two years in February 2011: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

The average unemployed American has now been out of work for a longer period than at any time since records began being kept more than 60 years ago -- more evidence, as if any were needed, that the jobs crisis is in reality a crisis of long-term unemployment.

The average duration of unemployment rose to 40.5 weeks in September, up from 40.3 weeks in August, according to the Labor Department's monthly jobs report, released Friday morning. That's the longest since the government started tracking the information in 1948, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.

It's difficult to convey just how anomalous the current rate of long-term unemployment is by historical standards. Through the end of the 1980s, for the most part, the average length of joblessness hovered between 10 and 15 weeks. Until May 2009--more than 736 months of data--it never exceeded 21.2 weeks, the high mark it hit during the downturn of the early 1980s. Today, after rising more or less steadily since mid 2008, it's nearly twice that.

Being out of work for a long period has several negative effects, analysts say. As President Obama and the Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke have noted, workers' skills tend to atrophy as they lose touch with developments in their field. Older workers become increasingly likely to give up searching for work. With rates of long-term unemployment as high as they are now, the jobless threaten to become a semi-permanent class, exacerbating growing inequality. And that's leaving aside the psychological and emotional toll of going for so long without work -- something Yahoo! readers told us about firsthand this summer.

Other measures of long-term joblessness in the government's report were almost as bleak. The number of Americans who have been out of work for more than 27 weeks -- the official definition of long-term unemployment -- rose to 6.24 million, up from 6.03 million in August. That figure is lower than it was for most of the spring and summer of 2010 -- it reached a high of 6.71 million in May of last year -- but is near its high point for 2011.

The median duration of joblessness also rose last month, to 22.2 weeks, up from 21.8 in August. It's now at its fourth-highest monthly mark ever.

The share of the total unemployed population who are considered long-term unemployed -- that is, they've been out of work for at least 27 weeks -- rose last month to 44.6 percent, from 42.9 percent in August. That figure, too, reached its peak in May 2010 but is now near its historic high.

The economy added 103,000 more jobs in September than expected. But that is hardly cause for celebration. As Dan Gross of Yahoo! Finance wrote, "This is nowhere near an acceptable level of job growth for an economy of this size and with this much slack."

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