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Jul 05th
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Self worth: What unemployment statistics can't measure


Last week, the Federal government reported the October unemployment rate at 10.2 percent, a 26-year high. Here in New Jersey, the latest numbers – September 2009 – tracked the nation at 9.8 percent, up from 5.8 percent the prior September.

That's an additional unemployed 184,000 individuals. Will the trend continue? We'll find out when the New Jersey Department of Workforce and Labor Development reports October numbers in mid-November.

When you're out of work, it can be daunting to hear that unemployment numbers are rising. It's natural to internalize the data, calculating how it might affect you personally. How many more weeks spent in the unemployment office? How many more applications for jobs that you never thought you'd line up for? How many more interviews that go great, but fail to produce a job offer?

What are unemployment stats really telling us? Does the average person understand what's behind the numbers? I know I didn't, so I played amateur economist and looked into it. There is very easy to understand information at The U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website.

Did you know, for example, that unemployment statistics are based on a sampling of households done on a monthly basis? The data does not measure every employable person who is out of work or files for unemployment insurance. Unemployment rates only count people in the labor force, defined as people who are actively pursuing jobs in the last 4 weeks before being surveyed.

In New Jersey over the 9/08 to 9/09 period that number actually increased by almost 33,000. That seems like a good thing, perhaps even a measure of optimism. But can we be optimistic when the number of unemployed increased from over 261,000 to almost 445,000 in the same period? That's up to each of us personally.

While it may be enlightening to understand all the complex nuances of the unemployment rate, we cheat ourselves when we use it as a barometer of our own personal chances of getting a job. No government statistic can measure that. More important, no numerical observation can measure how much hope you can have – how optimistic you can be.

And most important, there is no mathematical formula that can measure your self-worth, often one of the emotional casualties of being out of work.

Be a cockeyed optimist

Can we be optimistic in the face of so-called evidence that things are against us? Like Nellie, who sang A Cockeyed Optimist, in South Pacific, are we "incurably immature and green" to be "stuck like a dope with a thing called hope''? When the evidence seems to be piling up against the odds of being employed in the near future, are we allowed to be optimistic? Is it ever wrong to be optimistic? Is it really dopey to be hopeful?

Consider this. Isn't it the truth that while we may think there are reasons to be optimistic and reasons to be pessimistic, that we are the ones who make up the reasons? We are the ones who ferret out the evidence for and against. When we say we are wrong to be optimistic, we are saying we shouldn't believe that things may work out for us because x, y and z are against it.

But what if we are inclined to be optimistic anyway, at least optimistic enough to put on that suit, pick up that phone, show up at that appointment, do that networking, call that friend who knows someone. We have our reasons. We can trust that. Optimism is a decision, a personal choice – not a mathematical construct. We aren't computers where you load in the data and we spit out the probabilities. We are responsible for our optimism and no government statistic can take that away.

There is nothing wrong with being optimistic or pessimistic. These can simply be states of mind that reflect our belief in a particular outcome, as well as our own personal desires. If we are pessimistic, that can be an opportunity to look at what we believe about the situation and learn more or correct our course.

For example, if we believe no one will hire us at our age, what can we do to put our best foot forward? What can we find out that will point us in the right direction where jobs might be waiting? Perhaps it's time for a complete strategy overhaul. We can only know that if we allow ourselves to calculate the odds based on our own terms.


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