How the Long-Term Unemployed Can Find Work

5 million Americans have been looking for work for six months or more.

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Another unemployment benefits extension for the jobless in states with high unemployment rates sailed through the House last week, but faces a more complicated route through the Senate, where some members want a bill that provides some relief for all states, not just the hardest hit. While the extension itself is not exceptional, what it represents is. Eligible workers in the hardest-hit states already can receive 79 weeks of benefits. With the new extension, some workers will be able to collect nearly two years' worth of unemployment checks.

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The nation faces an unprecedented number of long-term unemployed—5 million workers were out of work for six months or more in August—and proponents of benefit extensions have a critical piece of data to support their cause: Job openings have bottomed out just as the volume of the unemployed has sailed higher. There were, last month, roughly six job seekers for every opening, or "simply not enough to go around," says Christine Riordan, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.

The most basic key to getting these 5 million people back to work is really "a more robust macroeconomy," says Harvard economist Lawrence Katz. Firms are not yet showing a willingness to risk new hires in the kinds of volumes that would put significant numbers of the unemployed into jobs. Even when they do hire, employers show a proclivity for job seekers with briefer tenures of unemployment. So, the challenge for the long-term unemployed is, in some respects, sharply different from that of fresh job seekers.

Preserving mental health. "It is a horrendous experience to go through long-term unemployment," says sociologist Thomas Cottle, author of Hardest Times: The Trauma of Long-term Unemployment. "It has devastating physical, psychological, and spiritual effects." After going many months—or years—without finding a job, such effects no doubt also prolong joblessness. Any kind of physical or mental disorder a person might have is exacerbated by the experience, Cottle says.

Although the long-term jobless experience their situation in different ways—perhaps because they represent multiple demographics—there are common patterns of angry depression, drops in self-esteem, and major transformations in their senses of themselves, Cottle says. Human beings are constantly exploring and assessing themselves in multiple domains, and "the domain of work is so essential," he says. Research shows that within two weeks of a person being told he may be laid off, he and his family show the effects of stress. While government can offer financial support to the unemployed by extending unemployment benefits, it's not clear how the jobless are supported—or should be supported—psychologically. But this appears to be a crucial element of success in regaining employment.

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Staying positive and having a plan. Researchers at the University of Missouri recently studied the efforts of 327 job seekers, ages 20 to 40, and found that developing and following a plan at the start of your job search, and having positive emotions later in the job search, had a significant impact on success. Daniel Turban, a professor and chair of the Department of Management in the University of Missouri's College of Business, says that for the long-term unemployed, it can be very difficult to stay energetic and positive. Making plans and following them up becomes difficult.

Positive emotions were particularly effective in face-to-face meetings, according to the study. That may be because those emotions are contagious or because people with positive emotions actually perform better in their interviews. Negative thoughts can be self-fulfilling and very harmful to a job search, so it's critical that job seekers be aware of their emotions. Nevertheless, Turban says he understands that "it can sound very trite to a long-term unemployed person: 'Just be happy!' "

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