A Growing Number of Americans Believe Quality Jobs Are Attainable

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“A robust job market is one of the most important components of a bustling economy,” noted research firm Gallup in its monthly survey of jobs data. But that begets one important question: what is a robust job market? Without a doubt, the current employment situation cannot be described as robust job market. Friday’s report from the Department of Labor “showed solid job growth in February,” commented Dean Maki, chief U.S. economist at Barclays, even though the unemployment rate ticked up by one percentage point. But the United States economy created just 175,000 job in the past month — growth that may have been better than expected but hardly strong.

But while “inroads” into unemployment are being made — pulling the unemployment rate down from January 2013’s 7.9 percent to 6.7 percent in February — progress is still slow. In other words, job growth may no longer be bad, but sluggish. February’s job growth of 175,000 is approximately enough to keep pace with the growing population, and job growth has yet to return to the average of 200,000 jobs per month added from June through November. And economists say that 200,000 jobs per month must be added in order to attain sustainable job growth.

The U.S. economy lost 8.7 million jobs during the financial crisis, and as of February, approximately 8 million have been recovered, a sign that the labor market is in fact resilient. The number of people who have been unemployed for less than five weeks fell by 61,000, to 2.3 million, in February, but other labor market indicators are still weak; the proportion of Americans in the level of long-term joblessness is concerning, while those who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more number 3.8 million — an increase of 203,000 from January.

Job creation, especially in terms of the health of the U.S. economy, is about more than just numbers. An inspection of the anecdotal data regarding the quality of U.S. job creation shows a similar story as the broader labor narrative: Progress is being made, but slowly. Adding quality jobs is a much bigger economic driver than adding only “jobs,” and last year, nearly half of the approximately 2.1 million jobs added in 2013 were in the low-wage sectors like retail, leisure, and hospitality. These part-time, low-wage positions become important when analyzing the “underemployment rate” — a broader measure of joblessness that includes people who work part-time and people whose skills are not being fully utilized.

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Source: Gallup

In a survey conducted between February 6 and February 9, Gallup found that 27 percent of Americans say it is now a good time to find a “quality job” — an increase from the low levels recorded between 2009 and 2012. But Americans are still not nearly as positives as they were in the pre-recession years of 2004 to 2008 and during the dot-com boom. The last time Americans’ optimism about job prospects reached 30 percent was January 2008. Gallup termed the poll results “modestly good news.” By comparison, several polls conducted at the depths of the recession, revealed that 90 percent of Americans said it was not a good time to find a quality job. But the fact remains that 70 percent of Americans still say quality jobs are not easy to find.

Since 2001, when Gallup first began tracking the sentiment of the American public regarding employment opportunities, the measure has ranged from a high of 48 percent in January 2007 to a low of 8 percent in November 2009 and November 2011. In August 2000, at the end of the dot-com boom, The University of Connecticut found that 78 percent of those employed or unemployed but looking for work said it was a good time to find a quality job. “Thus, while the current results on this measure are more positive than the recent lows, they are far more negative than at times in the past, and continue to reflect Americans’ generally pessimistic views of the U.S. job market,” explained Gallup’s Frank Newport.

“All in all, regardless of the precise nature of what is happening in the economy, if Americans define a situation as real, the consequences can be real,” Newport wrote. “This means the current perception that it’s not a good time to be looking for a job can translate into restraints on consumer spending, major economic commitments, moving, and other actions that could stimulate the economy.”

Gallup found that Americans’ perceptions of the job market had a lot to do with political beliefs and age.

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Source: Gallup

While the thirteen-year trend reflects the changes in the economic reality of the United States, breaking down the data further shows that Republicans were significantly more positive about the quality and availability of jobs when George W. Bush was president while Democrats became more positive once Barack Obama entered the White House. From 2004 to 2007, by a margin of more than 30 percentage points, Republicans were more likely than Democrats were to say job prospects were good.

Then, during the recession, the partisan gap narrowed, and in the first three years of Obama’s presidency, the difference between the two parties’ perceptions was relatively small. But beginning in spring 2012, the gap began to widen, reaching its widest point in November 2012, just after the presidential election. But at no point has Democrat optimism led by as large a margin as Republican optimism did from 2004 to 2007, meaning that the currently depressed views of the job market cannot entirely be explained by political differences.

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Source: Gallup

Younger Americans — those between the ages of 18 and 29 — are generally the most positive about their ability to find a quality job, while those aged 65 or older are most often the most pessimistic. The optimism of young Americans, which has become more pronounced since Obama took office, has much to do with their age. Pew Research found in a recent survey that those of the Millennial generation — who typically face much heavier economic burdens than those of other generations — are the most optimistic about their economic future.

As Pew noted in a recent survey, this optimism may simply reflect the “timeless confidence of youth,” an explanation that fits their faith in the job market as well. However, it is also true that younger Americans typically give Obama higher job approval ratings than any other age group, so the recent larger age gap may reflect the influence of partisanship in addition to the confidence of youth.

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