Recession slams blue-collar workers

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Don’t believe everything you read. Because if you did, you might just think that Wall Street bankers and journalists are suffering disproportionately from job losses.

The truth?

“This is a blue-collar recession, just like we saw in ‘81,” said Andrew Sum, professor of labor economics at Northeastern University. “In fact, we’ve seen no net loss among college graduates. At least not yet.”

In the 14 months after the start of the recession in late 2007, more than 5 million jobs were lost. Close to 70 percent of them belonged to blue-collar workers - an overwhelming majority of whom were male - Mr. Sum said.

Hit particularly hard was the construction sector, where the unemployment rate is about 17 percent, he said.

So, why are the media portraying a different face of unemployment?

“Journalists are prisoners of their own perceptions,” said Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. “They describe the world they see, and the world they see is the neighborhood they live in along with doctors and professors.”

In other words, journalists tend to write about the people with whom they identify most closely.

“It’s a form of journalistic narcissism,” Mr. Lichter said.

That might explain why media outlets are running stories about laid-off executives turning to manual labor and other members of the upper middle class who are finding inner peace in the wake of a layoff. (“I never knew how much I would enjoy staying home with the kids.”)

Well, for many blue-collar workers, staying home is not a viable option, said Mr. Sum, adding that many don’t have a financial cushion on which to rest in hard times.

So, stories that a “laid-off executive becomes a janitor” - while waiting for the next well-paying job - are not only a slap in the face of those at the bottom of the economic ladder but also unrepresentative of the bigger picture, he said.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, sees it differently. He said the stories that point out the anomaly - for example, the happily laid-off - are doing two things: pointing out the unusual (which makes it news) and trying to find some glimmer of hope in a time of distress.

“I think it’s more a sign of trying to find a silver lining rather than a sign of not caring for blue-collar job losses,” Mr. Rosenstiel said.

He also disagrees with the notion that the media are portraying the recession inaccurately in terms of job losses.

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