Workers experiencing unemployment in a downturn can be permanently scarred. They are less able to form durable attachments with employers and more likely to experience additional episodes of joblessness. Their wages tend to be lower, not just in the immediate aftermath of the event, but for decades, even over their entire working lifetimes. Lower wages are a sign that these workers’ productivity has been impaired.
In other words, while there has been no destruction of physical capital in the pandemic, the risk of damage to human capital is significant. At a time when unemployment in the US is on course to reach 25% and higher, this is a serious concern.
Historical evidence of the negative effects of unemployment on human capital is extensive. My Berkeley colleague Jesse Rothstein has documented their prevalence following the Great Recession. My teacher Nick Crafts, now at the University of Warwick, analyzed their ubiquity during the Great Depression.
In part, these effects reflect the frictions that arise when a worker’s attachment to a firm is broken. Firm-specific skills have no value when the firm that uses them goes out of business. Even when a worker’s skill set is more widely applicable, finding a suitable match with another employer may take time. This suggests that the US is more at risk of squandering human capital than European countries, where governments are pursuing ambitious policies to preserve employer-employee relationships.
Unemployment and hardship can also lead to demoralization, depression, and other psychological traumas, lowering affected individuals’ productivity and attractiveness to employers. We saw this in the 1930s, not just in declining rates of labor force participation but also in rising rates of suicide and falling rates of marriage. Here, too, one worries especially about the US, given its relatively limited safety net, its opioid crisis, and its “deaths of despair.”
Many of these negative consequences are most prevalent when unemployment is recurrent or extended. If this downturn turns out to be as short as it is sharp, one can hope that the loss of human capital, the resulting damage to the economy’s productive capacity, and the pain and suffering that come with them will be limited.
The length of the downturn will depend above all on our success at containing the coronavirus and mitigating its effects. And that success will hinge, in turn, on our cohesiveness as a society and on the quality of our leadership. For Americans, that is not a very hopeful note to end on.
Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story @ The Human-Capital Costs of the Crisis by Barry Eichengreen – Project Syndicate