American Dream breeds shame and blame for job seekers

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Out-of-work Americans tend to blame themselves for their predicament

Decades ago, the American dream inspired employees, offering the promise of the good life. But now, with jobs disappearing, that dream has become a nightmare for the unemployed who see their joblessness as a personal - and shameful - failure.

Victor Tan Chen studies some of the unluckiest people in the US.

The sociology fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, researches car workers in cities like Detroit, hard-hit by the economic downturn and by long-term trends in the US industrial base.

"But they used to be the luckiest men in America," Chen says.

Decades ago, car workers lived the quintessential American Dream: they pursued stable, well-paying, union-backed jobs, often straight out of high school. They were able to build a middle-class life and provide the promise of something better to their children.

Times have changed.

Now jobs are scarce, and people feel shame in being unprepared for the current labour market.

"Unemployed auto workers, factory workers, they have a lot of regrets about the past," he said.

"A lot of workers are internalising, 'You succeed on your own merits and your own abilities, and if you fail, you're to blame'," Chen says.

He isn't alone in seeing this pattern.

Experts tell the BBC that job seekers in the US are now, more than ever, blaming themselves for being out of work, due in part to misconceptions about what it takes to succeed in America.

The American Dream thrived in the 1950s, a period of booming manufacturing and a burgeoning American middle class.

But new rules started to take shape in the 1970s with the rise of globalisation and automation, Chen says.

Companies faced greater competition and unions began to lose power.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Michigan car workers have been some of the hardest hit by the downturn

Manufacturing jobs were replaced by service sector opportunities with lower wages. And nearly overnight, factory towns - where employers lived among the men and women they employed - were replaced by global enterprises.

The isolation of elite managers grew, and their sense of public engagement diminished, Chen explains.

"Now it's more by yourself, being on your own, sink or swim," he adds.

Meritocracy became the prevailing ideology, encouraging workers to aim high and reap the resultant rewards. Anyone could achieve greatness. Paupers could become princes.

The more people made, the more likely they were to believe they were worthy of it.

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology last year found that the higher people perceived their social class to be, the more likely they were to believe that success comes to those who most deserve it.

Perhaps more tellingly, those of lower status were viewed as unworthy.

That can create a "very damaging" culture, says Vicki Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis.

When US workers fail to recognise structural problems within the current labour market or that the "deck is stacked in certain ways", she says, they experience depression and a loss of motivation, ultimately lengthening the period of unemployment.

It can also lead employers to stigmatise the unemployed.

Rand Ghayad has seen this phenomenon thousands of times.

The visiting scholar at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston sent out nearly 5,000 resumes to US companies to determine to what extent the duration of unemployment factored in to whether a candidate was considered for a job.

The call-back rate for any candidate with a long-term unemployment spell - typically considered six months or longer - was a paltry 5-6%.

"Employers would rather hire a short-term [unemployed] applicant with no experience than bring in someone for an interview that's long-term unemployed with the exact experience they're looking for," he says. "They're giving up on the good people."

Ghayad notes employers assume if someone is out of work, it must have something to do with the candidate.

Job seekers start to believe it, too, a distinctly American phenomenon.

Ofer Sharone has compared US unemployment experiences with those in Israel, and found Americans tend to blame themselves more for their predicament.

Even though Israeli job seekers faced the same relative obstacles to finding work, they saw the down economy and a lack of jobs as an arbitrary, "screwed up" system, he says.

Job searching "was like playing the lottery", says Sharone, an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Israelis believed that if they kept up the hunt, eventually their number would come up.

But not Americans. They experienced a "more insidious and deep kind of discouragement" in which lost job opportunities were personal failures, he says.

And because they thought it was their fault, they were more likely to stop trying.

Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, argues there's nothing wrong with current US job seekers as a group other than their "misfortune of being jobseekers during the worst labour market downturn this country has seen in 70 years".

But that misfortune shows no signs of ebbing as labour markets continue to shift.

Factory work was a "good bet" decades ago, but luck changed for those Americans, Chen says.

Now, there's no clear path.

Amid that instability, he warns, anyone can become unlucky - and end up placing the blame on themselves.

Research contributed by Kierran Petersen