HR, Empathy, and The Jobless Era

Posted on March 4, 2010

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Many of the leading HR bloggers focus on recruitment. In much of what they write, there’s lots of discussion of finding the “superstars” and “rock stars” that are going to make major, measurable impacts on the organization doing the recruiting. When you read these blogs you start to get the feeling that they must be working for professional sports teams or Hollywood studios since, it appears, that only the truly exceptional need apply.

An article in this month’s Atlantic makes a strong case for thinking about jobs and employment in a rather different way.

The article, “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America,” by Don Peck, suggests that the current high rate of joblessness will have effects both long lasting and potentially severe not only for individuals and families who suffer through a period (or periods) of unemployment, but for society as a whole.

Peck writes:

If it persists much longer, this era of high joblessness will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults—and quite possibly those of the children behind them as well. It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar white men—and on white culture. It could change the nature of modern marriage, and also cripple marriage as an institution in many communities. It may already be plunging many inner cities into a kind of despair and dysfunction not seen for decades. Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years.

My intention here is not to analyze Peck’s article (which I strongly suggest you take the time to read), but rather to encourage HR pros to take his ideas seriously and to think through how those ideas could (or should) affect their work.

I’m not a recruiter, and I certainly respect recruiters’ professional aspirations to find the “best and the brightest” for their companies or their clients. But HR professionals in general – and those who focus on recruiting in particular – need to maintain a broader perspective about the current employment environment. A society with a stark divide between haves and have-nots is not in anybody’s best interest. Here’s another quote from the article that I find particularly disturbing:

The economy now sits in a hole more than 10 million jobs deep—that’s the number required to get back to 5 percent unemployment, the rate we had before the recession started, and one that’s been more or less typical for a generation. And because the population is growing and new people are continually coming onto the job market, we need to produce roughly 1.5 million new jobs a year—about 125,000 a month—just to keep from sinking deeper.

Even if the economy were to immediately begin producing 600,000 jobs a month—more than double the pace of the mid-to-late 1990s, when job growth was strong—it would take roughly two years to dig ourselves out of the hole we’re in. The economy could add jobs that fast, or even faster—job growth is theoretically limited only by labor supply, and a lot more labor is sitting idle today than usual. But the U.S. hasn’t seen that pace of sustained employment growth in more than 30 years. And given the particulars of this recession, matching idle workers with new jobs—even once economic growth picks up—seems likely to be a particularly slow and challenging process.

So while the economy has recently shown signs of improvement—stronger stock market performance, increasing corporate profits, the return of big Wall Street bonuses—for millions of individuals and families, times are still pretty tough. So, if nothing else, let’s at least try to stay humble and maintain a sense of empathy in our lives and in our work.

Posted in: Economy, HR—General