Should Americans brace themselves for European-style unemployment?

It's no secret we're poised for the Mother of All Jobless Recoveries. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke can't just spew that out, of course, but his remarks Monday -- and economists' estimates -- make the prognosis for the nation's unemployed morbidly grim.

Unemployment is a lagging indicator, meaning it won't bounce back until well after the recovery is underway. But even then, the consensus is that joblessness will improve at a glacially slow pace -- so woe unto all of us if the consensus is wrong and the outlook is even worse.
That makes the predictions of our more bearish economists and analysts almost too horrifying to contemplate. As such, we're not having John Mauldin over for tea anytime soon. The prolific financial writer and president of Millennium Wave Investments and his buddy Michael Shedlock, an advisor representative at SitkaPacific Capital Management, have been crunching the unemployment data. They conclude that the unemployment rate won't hit 5% (or so-called full employment) until -- best-case scenario -- 2020.

Before we get into Mauldin and Shedlock's three grim scenarios, let's have a quick recap of where we stand now. The official unemployment rate stands at 10.2% -- nearly a three-decade high -- and is closer to 18% if you count the folks who have given up looking for work. Economists, on average, expect the rate to inch up to 10.3% by the end of the year and fall only to 9.8% by the end of next year, according the The Wall Street Journal's latest economic forecasting survey.

Meanwhile, the economy has shed about 8 million private-sector jobs in the last two years, even as the U.S. needs to add about 125,000 jobs a month just to absorb the new folks entering the workforce. Put the two together, and the economy would need to create about 15 million jobs over the next five years just to get back to where we started at the inception of the Great Recession, Mauldin calculates.

Bad and Ugly

But wait -- it gets worse. What Maudlin is saying is that the U.S. needs to add 250,000 jobs a month every month for five years. That's an unprecedented level of job creation. Over the last decade we've experienced just one year when the economy gained more than 250,000 jobs a month every month, Mauldin says, and that was 1999: the height of the tech bubble. (As a depressing aside, Mauldin notes that the private sector has shed 300,000 jobs since 1999. A Lost Decade, indeed.)

The upshot of all this? Even the "good" scenario Maudlin susses out of the data is both bad and ugly. That's the one where we get to 5% unemployment by 2020. Still, that model assumes some very optimistic (if long-range) outcomes -- namely, no recessions for the following 10 years and 2 million jobs added each year after 2011. "Of course, we've never done that, but let's be optimistic," Mauldin writes.

And even then, we would still be in for a very painful recovery in the labor market. Unemployment would rise to about 11% early next year and remain above 10% until well into 2013. By the end of 2016 it would still stand at 8%, before finally tapering off to levels Americans are conditioned to accept.

Uh Oh

Now for the worst-case scenario, which assumes a quick double-dip recession in 2011. (Meredith Whitney, who is about as famous as a bank analyst can get, said Monday that we're in for a double-dip recession, by the way.) Throw in the very real possibility of higher taxes and we get unemployment peaking at just below 13% in 2011 and 2012, and then remaining above 10% for the next eight years. (David Rosenberg, chief economist at Canada's Gluskin Sheff and formerly of Merrill Lynch, says unemployment could hit 13%, too.)

The middling scenario, which sort of splits the difference, assumes no double-dip recession, baby boomers retiring on time and job creation following along the same lines as it did in the last recovery. That still puts unemployment above 11% for three years, from mid-2010 to mid-2013. It wouldn't drop below 10% until 2015 and would still stand at 8% in 2020.

"Pessimistic? Mainstream and usually very optimistic Mark Zandi of Moody's predicted [last] week that unemployment would rise to 11% by the middle of next year, right in line with this scenario," Mauldin says.

True, these are just predictions, not forgone conclusions. There are bullish folks and data points out there, too. Some executives at ING, the Dutch financial services giant, said Tuesday that unemployment will fall precipitously next year. We also learned Tuesday that job losses on Wall Street have not been as bad as feared.

But should a better-than-Mauldin's-best-case scenario fail to materialize, U.S. workers will have to get used to a shocking New Normal -- a jobs picture more traditionally associated with that of Old Europe. That's not exactly the stuff American Dreams are made of.
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