I am not old enough to have first-hand experience of the ‘then’s that I will discuss. I have not done any solid research on the history of job hunting, it is to be taken purely as my impression (perhaps a hypothesis) of the way that finding a job has changed through recent history in America. I am a historian and have a basic knowledge of how the economy fits in. I would love to hear from people of all ages to see how your experience matches up, or doesn’t.
I will start with the Great Depression: At this point, as we all know, there were no jobs. People were laid off en masse. When these newly unemployed people joined the ranks of the job hunter, the market was flooded. The few places that needed workers had great pickings. Each person, new to the workforce or not did everything they could to find a job. I am not sure how much the modern ‘application process’ would apply, but I do know that every place they asked about employment said in no uncertain terms that they were not hiring. This hiring freeze got so bad that people had to move across the country. (Made worse by the dust bowl, which was made worse by farmers unable to afford to plant.) When they got there, they might be able to work, but they could scarcely get paid.
In the face of this crisis, the government stepped in. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was created to provide jobs for the unemployed and create valuable infrastructure. Much of what this agency created is still standing. There has not been such a massive infrastructure boom since. This gave people valuable income at a time when there was no money exchanging hands. The WPA, while a valuable aid to ending the Great Depression, was by itself insufficient. As terrible as war is, WWII saved the US economy. Men entered the army, women were hired to produce the things needed to arm the country. Prior to the war, we had been so long isolationist that we had very little military establishment, and everything had to built from scratch.
Following the war, men returned to a domestic job struggle. Women had been working outside of the home in large numbers, and doing jobs traditionally done by men. The image that we have of the 1950’s as a time when women stayed home and cooked and cleaned for her husband in perfect marital bliss was largely a media campaign to encourage women to give up these jobs so that returning soldiers could take their place. Some women welcomed this, others did not. Either way, the genie was out of the bottle. Women knew that they could do it too.
Many of these unemployed women took a more active role outside the home. At this time it was possible for one person to support a household. The economic boom that the war had provided made sure that there were jobs for whoever wanted them. Businesses were able to reap the hiring rewards of a generation of men returning from the war as well as a generation of boys coming of age with a higher education. Job seekers benefited as well, as long as there was a surplus of empty positions that needed to be filled. Connections with family and friends was a key way to find a better position.
By the 1960’s the hiring boom was over, and young people were not being offered jobs straight out of college. The harder-to-find jobs in part contributed to the unrest of the period. This time the war made things worse. The Vietnam War was wildly unpopular and men were resentful of being forced into that career. There is also a section of this generation that lived off of their parents, who were still making enough to support their grown children. After the war, the veterans of Vietnam were not received with open arms as the WWII veterans had been. People hated the war, and they extended that to those who fought in it. This is particularly unfortunate since so many of these men did not support the war either. Many of these veterans make up the numbers of the homeless to this day.
The 1970’s seem to have found a balance of sorts. People who had been working for many years were retiring, opening positions for the young. The economy was growing, and a job seeker could find something that matched their education level. This trend continued for much of the next several decades. However the wages did not match economic inflation, and it became necessary for more and more families to have two wage earners.
In the late 2000’s the bottom fell out of the economy again, and many people were laid off. This created a similar dynamic to that of the Great Depression. Businesses were not hiring, as too many unemployed workers flooded the market. This has never hit those levels thankfully, but it has been exacerbated as people were forced to put off retirement due to losses in the stock market.
This has created a system whereby the employers can have their pick of any number of applicants. Of course they usually choose someone who they have evidence will do quality work for them; someone who has a track record in the field, someone who has held a job before for a significant amount of time. The more work that they think they can get out of a person for the minimum amount of money is the rule.
This means a few things. It means that people without an official job history have a difficult time entering the workforce. It also means that when you do get a job, you have to work hard to keep it. Employers know that if you do not pull your weight, there is a long line of people ready to take your place. They also know that people are desperate for work and will take what they can get, so they feel no compulsion to pay well.
In the past, having higher education meant that you were more likely to be hired in your field. Today in order for that to be true, you need a minimum of a master’s degree. This means that people with college educations, who have worked hard to get a good job are left finding work that does not need their particular skills, largely minimum wage positions. In some places having that higher education can be detrimental if an employer thinks it means that they will have to pay more. In others it can help show a track record of determination. Either way, there is really no-where to go from there.
There are some businesses that have an active policy of randomized schedules that prevent employees from going to school or having other jobs.
There is no initiative in the business world to pay people more, when people need the job so badly that they are willing to work for less. For many businesses internal promotions are more cost-effective than looking outside the company, because the people who work for them are desperate for a raise, cannot get one in the company without promotion, and work too much to find alternative work.
Today the job market is optimized for the employer. This is a trend that has been on the horizon for many years, but has fully come to fruition in the last decade or so. There is still work that they want to do to make it even better, like eliminating workers rights. On average our economy is strong. It is not like the Great Depression. There is plenty of money to go around. The problem is that it is not moving. It is always getting more difficult for people to defend themselves, and as such the sooner action is taken, the more effective that action is. We cannot wait until we have completely lost our rights before we realize what we have lost.