THE COUNTRY is now coping with a level of unemployment that, a few years back, would have been considered intolerable. On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that yet another record had been set in October, with 11.6 million people unemployed. Judging by last week's election returns, people have adjusted to this mounting hardship -- not without concern, but with a certain measure of grim resignation.
This acceptance is all the more remarkable in that the personal consequences of this recession have been unusually severe. Earlier in the 1970s, the ranks of the unemployed were swollen by new labor market entrants -- young people looking for their first jobs, often without much pressure to settle down. In this recession, the big losers have been adult workers -- the unemployment rate for adult men, normally the most recession-proof group, has now hit 9.8 percent, more than a point above the rate for women. And almost all the 3.7 million rise in unemployment since 1981 has been accounted for by people who had held jobs and lost them.
This same phenomenon shows up in the fact that people have not been dropping out of the labor force in the numbers characteristic of earlier recessions. Since people who give up looking for jobs are not counted among the unemployed, this means that the measured unemployment rate is somewhat higher than it would have been. This, however, is no cause for comfort. People keep on looking, no matter how dreary the prospect, when finding a job is vital to them and their families.
Productivity statistics provide another double-edged measure. In most recessions, labor productivity declines because employers are reluctant to cut back their work forces -- particularly their white-collar workers -- as much as they are forced to cut back production. In this recession, the drop in productivity has been less severe. High-technology investment may account for part of that result, but it is also a sign that employers have been making deeper cuts in employment because they don't expect a quick recovery.
This realization that no quick fix is in store may explain why the response to the painful unemployment situation is so low-key. Reaganomics has turned out to be just a stiffer dose of that old-time medicine for inflation -- unemployment. Except that this time the medicine didn't work quite as well as it used to. Inflation has abated sharply, but the accompanying rise in unemployment has been slightly more severe than classical economics would predict. And with deficits also at record highs, there is little room for a Keynesian dose of stimulation. The sad fact seems to be that unless the country can develop some agreement -- tacit or otherwise -- that holds down wages and prices, it may be a long time before there is good news about employment