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In 20 years of recruiting executives, William Rowe says he's never had such a hard time persuading the inhabitants of corporate suites to swap corner offices. "There's more hesitancy," says Rowe, vice-chairman of the search firm Pearson Partners International. "You know how to play the game of chess in the platform you're on. You can't be sure of that in a new place, no matter how good you are."
From the factory floor to the boardroom, few Americans these days are willing to tell the boss to shove it. Many of those who have weathered the recession with their jobs intact are now sheltering in place, either fearful of risking a change or simply lacking the opportunity. Since January 2009, an average 1 million fewer Americans per month have quit their jobs than in previous years. Through April, the most recent data available, that adds up to 28 million Americans stuck in jobs they would have left in ordinary times.
That's a lot of careers slowed and dreams deferred. At double the number of the 14 million unemployed Americans, it's also a huge swath of voters who may be in search of a Presidential candidate who they believe understands their discontent. "It absolutely could be the swing group who decides the election, and it could be the group who responds to a third-party candidate," says Democratic political strategist Joe Trippi, who managed Howard Dean's insurgent 2004 Presidential bid.
Among the Republican hopefuls, says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economic policy adviser to 2008 GOP nominee John McCain, "it's a race to see who is going to be first to reach a group this big with a clear reason to be dissatisfied with the President."
Barack Obama and his advisers know the danger he faces: No U.S. President since World War II has been reelected with unemployment above 7.2 percent. The rate in May stood at 9.1 percent. Yet that daunting figure alone doesn't fully capture what Obama's up against. The attention given to the unemployment numbers obscures a subtler but persistent sluggishness in opportunity, one that breeds skepticism about the recovery even among those who are grateful to be working. If the President wants to keep his job, Americans may first have to feel more confident about quitting theirs.
In good times and bad there is usually a great deal of movement in the labor market. Statistics showing the economy's job losses or gains come from comparing the millions of new hires businesses make every month against the millions who are laid off or quit. The job gains in the current recovery have come during a period of unusually low turnover.
In October 2001, when monthly job losses in the prior recession reached their worst, at 325,000, businesses still hired 5.1 million new employees. Compare that with May 2010, when job gains in the current recovery reached a high of 458,000. That month, businesses hired only 4.3 million new employees.
The willingness of employees to quit their jobs "is probably the best single indicator of how confident workers are," says Lawrence Katz, a Harvard University labor economics professor. "When people are unwilling to quit, they don't have the leverage to press for wage increases."
Right now, the buying power of paychecks is slipping. After inflation, average hourly earnings for U.S. workers fell 1.6 percent over the past year through May. For the first year and a half of the Obama Administration, real hourly wages had been flat.
Among those likely to bear the greatest burden of the stagnant job market are younger Americans, who were some of Obama's most enthusiastic supporters in the 2008 campaign. Between 30 percent and 50 percent of wage growth in the first 10 years of employment comes from switching jobs, Katz said. The lost opportunities for early career advancement are likely to slow this generation's progress for years, even decades to come, he added.
"You're cutting off an important avenue of upward mobility for young people," says Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University and the Urban Institute.
In 2010 young people's ardor for Democrats cooled. Among voters under 30, exit polls showed 55 percent backed Democratic House candidates in the midterm elections, down from 66 percent who supported Obama in 2008. Disillusionment among the young would be a serious setback for the Obama reelection campaign. In 2008 young supporters filled the ranks of his tech-savvy field organization and turned out to vote for him in unusually large numbers. They were critical to helping him win traditionally Republican states including Virginia and North Carolina, says Democratic strategist Tad Devine.
The backlog of workers trapped in jobs they are ready to leave and their eroded wages underscore how difficult it will be to translate the slow economic recovery into progress ordinary Americans can feel in the 17 months remaining before the Presidential election, says Stan Greenberg, a former pollster for Bill Clinton. It's why public opinion about the economy hasn't improved much despite seven quarters of economic growth and progress on the unemployment rate, he says. Political leaders need to respond by acknowledging what people are going through in the "real economy," he says. It's not just mundane advancement that people are putting off. It may be a new life in a new place, or an escape from a tyrannical boss. "You've got 28 million people whose aspirations are being contained," Greenberg says. "There's real emotion and real poignancy in this."
The bottom line: Millions of frustrated Americans, frozen by the slow recovery in jobs they no longer want, may prove a powerful voting bloc in 2012.