High unemployment is here to stay … so what are you going to do about it?

I had a discussion yesterday with Sandy Maxey on Twitter about the unemployment issue here in the United States. Up till now, I’ve just had cursory thoughts about it. Everybody seems to have a solution. On one end we have full-scale government job creation intervention. And on the other, some profess in the unabashed free market. Of course the solution probably lies somewhere in between. Here’s my take on it.

First, not all short-term issues need to be “fixed.” Economies, just as the seasons, cycle and repeat. Just as you can’t expect your tulips to bloom year round – the economy isn’t always going to be bullish. There is a limit to prosperity. We don’t live in utopia. And very often our short-term interference does more harm than good.

We have evolved into a pampered society. We expect things to always be rosy. I don’t mean say that there are not people who are hurting … because there is. But for most of us – our plight is greatly overstated. Our individual wellbeing will ultimately be dependent on us ourselves. How we each deal with our up and downs is the determining factor, because our ups and downs will happen.

Second, we are witnessing a profound shift in the employment needs of the marketplace. In years past, we made things and we, along with world bought these things. Today, such is not necessarily the case. Manufacturing jobs, jobs which defined middle class are gone – and probably won’t be back. There is nothing government intervention or lower taxes can do about it. Efforts to nurture declining industries and their corresponding jobs will do more harm than good. It may not seem like that when you’re trying to pay the mortgage – but it is what it is.

Middle management job fair

This doesn’t mean there aren’t employment opportunities out there though. Unfortunately, our education system and most of all our attitudes towards jobs and security haven’t kept pace with reality and the changes in the marketplace. Our education system keeps churning out college graduates with middle management skills – yet the prospects for these jobs are bleak. We educate more and more want to be lawyers, yet technology is making much of the legal field obsolete.

The biggest culprit in this chasm between labor supply and demand are the parents of our youth. “I want my son and daughter to go college.” It doesn’t make any difference whether there’s a job at the end of ten of thousand of dollars of debt – they’re still going to college. It doesn’t even matter what the degree is in – “they’re still getting one.”

Now to my third point. The jobs that will fuel our labor recovery don’t exist … at least not right now. And I can’t tell you what they’re going to be. They’re just going to happen. What we as a country has to do is create a workforce that excels at being able to change … to adapt. We have to get back to being a country of entrepreneurial spirit. This is where the job and the opportunities will be – not with the Fortune 500. Our biggest problem is our reluctance to give up old perseptions and norms. We have a middle-aged unemployed workforce that is searching for jobs that aren’t there. We have college graduates searching for a secured career like their grandparents had.

Who would have guessed that the internet would have become what it has and spawn the opportunities it has. Nobody. Even five years ago, who would have predicted there would be ten of thousands of people creating cell phone applications – from their home. Nobody. There will opportunities that will surface that entrepreneur will take advantage of. But these entrepreneurs may or may not be in this country.

In fact, our insistence in holding on to outdated institutions has actually put us a disadvantage in creative thinking. We want things like they were. Even from a personal standpoint – we whine about gas prices, yet few of us make changes to our lifestyles. “Take a bus a day a week to work – not me.” Rather than take advantage of opportunities that higher gas prices have created – we bitch about it. Inactivity will do nothing but drop you further behind.

Well, things have to change. There’s no going back to the good old days of the past (even though they might not even have been so good). The crucial skill we have to learn and embrace is the ability, and even the mastery of being able to change and adapt. We have to learn to see what’s not there and take the risk to make it there. We may stumble, or even fall down. But if we know how get back up – who cares! We need to nurture our own personal Phoenix (see the post about my daughter’s tattoo and you’ll get my drift).

This new adaptable attitude has to encompass our entire lives including what we put value in. If you’re a parent, quit pushing your kids into a career and lifestyle that makes you feel good and impresses your neighbors. You won’t feel so good when you’re the paying off their college debt while your son or daughter lives in your basement looking for a job – unsuccessfully. And get over the “white picket fence” syndrome. While owning your own home might have been the American Dream for generations past … it’s no longer. In most cases, all it is is a ball and chain mortgage strapped to you that limits your geographic flexibility. You have to be able to go to where the jobs are. And owning a house certainly puts a crimp in that, especially in this market.

We can all sit and listen to politicians talk about what they’re going to do to jump-start the economy and lower the unemployment to pre-recession levels.  But they have no better idea than you do or I do. Only you know what your own personal answer is.  You have to take matters into your own hands. But please, loosen up your criteria. Whatever security you had in the past is probably gone – so deal with it. When you think things are bad … they could be a lot worse. I know. For two years I rotated between living in motels and a tent (with my teenage daughter). And in hindsight, neither one of us is any worse for wear. If anything we’re both a lot stronger and more empathetic.

I know I’ll get comments bagging on my lack of sympathy. And they’ll be right. Sympathy is not my strong suit. But what I do have is empathy. I’ve been there and know what it takes to completely change my frame of reference and really come to grips with what’s important to me.

All I ask from you is develop the skills to adapt and see the opportunities that out there – not the ones you wish were out there. And please help your children do the same. Don’t cement their view of value and the world with yours.

“The mind can make heaven of hell … and hell of heaven.” So get out there create your own heaven.

Please comment. Your views and insight, pro or con, are valuable and make the post.

Also follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg. There’s always good stuff happening there.

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