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Unemployment and Sociological Imagination

When one is unemployed, it is very easy to sit and berate yourself, saying things such as  “if I had only worked harder, I would have gotten the job” or “if I were better educated, I would have gotten the promotion instead of being let go.” However, sociologist C. Wright Mills believes that people should not define their lives by their personal successes and failures, but must see the circumstances of their lives as shaped by the context of society – in other words, using your sociological imagination.

There are many reasons for unemployment; one of which can certainly be a lack of personal drive. However, for everyone who has striven to gain employment and been unable to do so, there are many external reasons that would contribute greatly to this situation – societal reasons. If there are many people in society who are unemployed, then it should be seen as a societal problem, and treated as such, instead of having the unemployed individuals berating themselves, or being looked down upon by others in their society. If these issues, in this case unemployment, are happening on a large scale, then they no longer are personal issues and have now become societal problems – where these public issues may require government policy or intervention.

In the United States, the current unemployment rate is 9.1%, meaning that 10% of the able-bodied population of the United States do not have jobs. For those with disabilities, the rate of unemployment is even higher – 14.8%; unemployment is 9.8% for the foreign born, and 11.5% for veterans. From looking at these statistics, we can see that a fairly high proportion of the US labour force is unemployed – 14 million people to be exact. Long-term unemployed, those who have not held a job for 27 weeks or more, is 6 million people as of August, and accounts for 42.9% of the unemployed.  When confronted with such statistics, it seems a logical step to apply Mills’ theory of sociological imagination and rationalise that, with unemployment affecting 14 million Americans; it is more of a societal problem than an individual one.

How, one may ask, is the society contributing to high unemployment rates? The global recession that started in December 2007 has had a huge impact on the global economy, causing loss of jobs, stagnancy in market growth, and resulting in unemployment. While we are technically out of the recession as of June 2009, its after effects continue to be felt. While post-recession unemployment in the United States stood at 5% , the current rate, as mentioned above, is 9.1%. In the past four years, the working-age population has increased the workforce by 3%, while the economy should be growing at the same rate. However, the economy instead has 5% fewer jobs than pre-recession; so while the workforce is growing, the number of available jobs is not. To put this into figures, in January 2011, 36,000 jobs were added to the economy, while economists predict that 150,000 jobs were needed to keep up with the population growth. This is one huge factor contributing towards unemployment.

Government jobs used to be considered safe, however, in recent years both local and state governments have been cutting back, continuously axing jobs. The loss of potential government sector jobs has also contributed to the high unemployment rate.

The creation and formation of new businesses also traditionally contributes to the creation of new jobs. “In the current environment, however, start-up activity has plunged. Running 25% below its 2006 peak, it is at its slowest pace since the Labor Department began tracking the activity in 1994.” Funding for new businesses, such as from angel investors or banks, is difficult, discouraging potential entrepreneurs and causing a lack of job creation.

The low cost of labour in other countries has also contributed to the lack of jobs in the United States. For example, the cost advantage of locating manufacturing in China has moved thousands of US jobs there, while India remains a popular choice for outsourcing.

There are many other contributing factors to unemployment, such as high taxes paid by US-based business, which turn to other countries instead; increasingly sophisticated automated machinery taking away jobs from manual labourers; the concept of hiring workers for a fixed term – so called “contract workers” ensures that those workers do not have permanent work; peak scheduling, temporary and part-time jobs reduce the need for full time employees; and rising oil prices forces companies to relocate their manufacturing closer to oil-producing sources. All of these combined factors serve to drive home the point that unemployment is not a personal but a societal problem.

Unemployment of individuals also affects society and the economy. For example, those who are employed are forced to pay higher taxes to make up for those who are not paying taxes. The government also has to increase spending, such as for unemployed benefits; the spending power of the unemployed goes down, adversely affecting the economy; and standard of living and poverty level of the country are affected. On a more human level, unemployment results in despair, which coincides with rises of mental health issues, health issues, tension in the home, increased crime and violence, increased suicides, stigma to the unemployed family, and insecurity amongst those who are still employed. You can see that in a catch-22 situation, while societal problems can cause unemployment, pervasive unemployment also negatively affects society.

“Being without a job is a terrible personal trouble, but it is neither the result nor the fault of anything the unemployed have done. Rather, it is the working out, for them, of society’s inability or unwillingness to provide full employment,” (Becker). Thus, one can conclude, that both according to Mills’ theory of sociological imagination and realistically speaking, unemployment is more than a personal problem; unemployment is a public issue.

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