US & Canada

How do you ease the pain of losing a job?

Are there any economic statistics more offensive than those related to unemployment?

Whether they are reported as fractions of percentages or in nice rounded-out numbers, up or down, they can never ever tell the individual story of tragedy and disappointment that losing a job means. Nor can they hint at the changes to society caused by wide-scale joblessness.

Image caption Between December 2007 and March 2009, 5.1m Americans lost their jobs

This is especially true in a recession when people become unemployed by the million. The personal side hardly gets a look in when the numbers are as bad - and confusing - as they are at the moment in both the US and the UK.

In America, the unemployment rate in August was 9.6%. In the UK, the stats are compiled quarterly and were last published in June.

Unemployment then stood at 7.8%. Grim numbers, confusing spin: the rate is falling - not fast enough for large numbers of new jobs to be created. It's all bad - but not as fast as analysts feared. The markets rose on the news - it's all good.

Lost in the confusion is the supreme number from the US: between December 2007 and March 2009, 5.1 million Americans lost their jobs. It's a big country but that is a huge shock to the system. It is easier to compile statistics measuring the size of the shock than to build a picture of how that has changed society.

Emotive issue

A reasonable guess would be that the whipsawing nature of contemporary American politics: Barack Obama elected president followed by the inexorable rise of the Tea Party, and the palpable feeling of angry despair in much of the country that politicians are having to appease can be traced to the loss of so many jobs in such a short period of time.

Image caption One part of America's myth about itself is that you pick yourself up when you lose a job

Curiously, joblessness is a much more emotive issue today in America than in Britain. Possibly because unions are so weak in the US. A mere 7% of American workers belong to a union compared with close to 25% in Britain. As this week's Trade Union Congress annual conference demonstrates, unions offer a constructive channel to focus anger at mass lay-offs.

Another reason inchoate rage is more prevalent in America during this downturn is because the social safety net is thinner. Unemployment compensation - the dole - has, for a very long time, been paid for just 26 weeks. In the current climate, Congress has authorised special payments that allow the very long-term unemployed up to 99 weeks of payments - but only after a nasty battle.

The dole is pretty much it on the benefits front and, as most workers who have been laid off will tell you, it is something they paid for anyway in payroll taxes when they were employed - so what kind of benefit is it anyway?

In Britain the calculations are more complex, but there is a wider variety of help available for the long-term unemployed. This, too, may help ease the pain of losing a job. Then there is the fact that unemployment carries a greater stigma in America then in Britain. Sympathy for losing your job runs out faster than unemployment benefits in the US.

Re-invent yourself

One part of America's myth about itself is that you pick yourself up when you lose your job, move on and start over. Previous big economic downturns have seen mass population shifts. In the 1930s, California's population swelled with migrants from the Plains States - the Dust Bowl - and deprived areas in cities on the East Coast.

In the 1970s, the great heavy industries along the Great Lakes went through a massive contraction. The term Rust Belt came into being to describe the region. People had to move on. The population growth of the American South and Southwest dates from this time.

The problem in the current downturn is there is no place left to go.

Image caption Mass population shifts occurred during previous big economic downturns

California is full - and broke. Las Vegas and Greater Phoenix are full of empty sub-prime financed houses waiting to be repossesed. So now what to do? Start your own business.

In an interesting essay published in The New York Times last June, the former Clinton administration Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, noted a recent report that showed 2009 - when America was still in recession, with bank lending depressed - saw business start-ups reaching a 14-year high, greater even than in the technology boom of the late 90s.

The explanation for this counterintuitive number was simple, according to Mr Reich. Many people who have lost their jobs have had to re-invent themselves by starting consultant businesses with one employee: themselves. So, basically, they are doing the same work they did before but on a part-time basis.

Part-time solution

Self-employment among people between the ages of 55 and 64 in 2009 was up 5% on the previous year; for over 65s it was up 29%. Why are 65s being measured? Well, a great many people found that their private pensions were seriously devalued when the stock market tanked during the worst days of the banking crisis and they simply don't have enough money to retire.

The part-time solution has taken hold in Britain, as well. It is currently at an all-time high. More than a million people who want full-time work are currently in part-time employment. In the reported last quarter, part-time employment rose by 117,000 and self-employment by 59,000. As for solutions, today, more than at any time in the past 30 years, there is a marked difference in the way the governments in Britain and America choose to address a jobs crisis.

Image caption In the UK, there is no plan for more spending to stimulate employment

Since Labor Day, President Obama has made employment his focus. He announced a $50bn plan to rebuild America's crumbling transport infrastructure. Now all he needs is for Congress to approve it.

Meanwhile in Britain, there is no plan for more spending to stimulate employment. Instead government departments are finishing up their reports for Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne's autumn spending review. He is demanding cuts of between 25% and 40% from each department. Those are just numbers. The cuts mean big job losses - the fastest-growing employment sector in Britain in recent years has been government work.

It is not likely to be clear any time soon which approach works best to get people back on the job. The IMF and the International Labor Organization published a report on global unemployment this week. It described a global "wasteland of unemployment." The report emphasises the grimmest statistic: 210 million people unemployed around the world.

Against such a frightening number it is impossible for one single government's approach to joblessness to work. Globalisation doesn't just connect businesses, it connects the workers who make things as well. The problem cannot adequately be expressed in statistics. The human response to this plague of joblessness is frightening to contemplate.

Michael Goldfarb is a journalist and broadcaster who has lived in London since 1985. Formerly with National Public Radio, he is now the London correspondent of