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For the month of May, the unemployment rate clocked in at 9.4%, the highest level since the early 1980s. It felt like old times.
I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, a town on the Pennsylvania border that used to be the home of some of the worldâ€™s largest steel makers. My motherâ€™s father was an organizer for the United Steelworkers and eventually was promoted into a sales job: hence, management. My father had wanted to go to college, but his family could not afford it. A white guy with an Irish name, he did the next-best thing and joined the plumbing apprenticeship program, and then became involved in union politics. He lost an election and took a job representing commercial construction companies in political and labor negotiations. Although he took an enormous pay cut when I was in high school, he not only had a job, but it was a one where he wore a coat and tie and had the use of a late-model Oldsmobile.
When I was a senior in high school, the unemployment rate in Youngstown was over 20%. Not everyone in my class had a father who dropped them off on his way to work in his spiffy company car. In Youngstown in 1982, my family was elite. Well, okay, I wasnâ€™t the child of a doctor or a Mafioso (in which case, I would have had my own Camaro to drive to school), but I was better off than so many of my classmates. I showed up at Northwestern thinking that I was a rich kid and was stunned to find out that rich kids do not have student loans and work-study jobs.
The recession of the early 1980s didnâ€™t hit the country evenly. Some places, like Youngstown, were devastated. But it seemed like the rest of the country was skipping merrily along. In college, Iâ€™d find myself in the weird position of being the Voice of the Working Class in too many discussions. Iâ€™d object. My father was a bigwig in the Rotary Club! He was on the arts council! He drove an Oldsmobile!
However, I knew people who had worked on assembly lines, I knew unemployed steelworkers, and I had some basic knowledge of union politics. I was about as blue collar a person as one might find in Evanston, Illinois. I had a perspective that few others did. The lack of empathy back then, especially from people in power, was appalling.
After college, working in finance, my stories seemed even more fantastical to people. Blue-collar recession wasnâ€™t something people on Wall Street understood. My husband and I lived in San Francisco from 1993 to 2000, where we watched the bubble at its burstiest, and I saw the contrast whenever Iâ€™d go to Youngstown to visit. One year at Christmas, my husband flew to Youngstown straight from a three-week business trip to Japan. When we got back to Chicago, he was telling his co-workers stories of his travels, including his visits to my fatherâ€™s favorite bar. He realized that in your modern urban hipster-professional circles, an old-manâ€™s bar in a depressed American town is more exotic than anything in Tokyo.
The current economy is not nearly as bad as what I remember of the early 1980s, but thatâ€™s not saying much. The difference may be that the effects are widely spread now; steel manufacturing is concentrated in a few regions, but every town has banks and real estate agents. We have more chain stores. All Circuit City stores closed when the company went bankrupt, even the ones that were doing well. When retailing was regional, bankruptcies were contained.
The recovery from a severe recession is difficult, and the economy will be different when itâ€™s over. Youngstown has not recovered. Instead, people left in droves, and those who stayed manage in a much smaller place. But when we have an evenly spread recession, we canâ€™t just move our way out of trouble. Weâ€™re going to have to create new industries, new ways of working, and new safety nets. Itâ€™s all about the brain power now.