3 Facts About the Economy That Should Freak You Out

It's Halloween! What better time for three scary facts that should freak you out.

1. Long-term unemployment could last a generation
The median duration of unemployment is now 18.5 weeks, compared with a 50-year average of 8.2 weeks. The unemployment rate for those aged 16 to 24 is nearly 16%. According to a Rutgers survey based on a nationwide sampling, 12% of those who have graduated college since 2006 are either unemployed or can't find full-time work -- and they're the ones with college degrees.

It's hard to exaggerate how dangerous this is -- and how dangerous it can remain.

In a study of men graduating from college between 1979 and 1989, Yale economist Lisa Kahn found that those entering the labor market during poor economic times earned about 7% less than those who graduated when the economy was strong. And the gap persisted for years: 17 years after graduation, Kahn found that those who began their careers when the economy was in recession were still earning less than those who started their careers when the economy was strong, adjusted for inflation and age. Those who stepped into a world of high unemployment were never able to shake it off.

Testifying before Congress in 2010, Til von Wachter of Columbia University offered another startling stat: "The average mature worker losing a stable job at a good employer will see earnings reductions of 20% lasting over 15 to 20 years" when laid off during a recession.

The longer unemployment lasts, the harder it is to recover from. Here's how economist Justin Wolfers put it last year:

Typically in the United Sates, if you're unemployed you're unemployed for three months. You get back to work. You didn't lose many skills. In Europe, folks are unemployed for a year, two years.

Today in the United States, people are starting to get unemployed six months and twelve months. They're losing contact with the world of work. And so the problem is that, even when the economy comes back, it's not clear that these folks are necessarily going to be in contact with the labor market, able to pick up jobs even when the economy generates them. ...

I'm terrified that if we leave millions of people out there decreasingly engaged with the world of work, structural unemployment may become an American problem in ways it has been a European problem.

2. Rising interest rates could be devastating
The federal government has $16 trillion of debt, $11 trillion of which is owned by the public (the rest is held by government entities like Social Security). Last year we paid $230 billion in interest on that debt, so the average interest rate is a little over 2%.

That's incredibly low, and returning to more average interest rates could balloon the deficit. Since 1970, the average interest rate paid on debt held by the public is 5.9%. If interest rates returned to that average, our annual interest tab would rise by $400 billion. That's about four times what the federal government currently spends on education and training. The average interest rate on federal debt was highest in 1982, at 9.3%. Returning to that level would add $800 billion to our annual interest bill, which is more than we currently spend on Social Security.

Households aren't in much better shape. Since 2009, investors have pumped nearly $1 trillion into bond mutual funds, $400 billion into Treasuries, and more still into bond ETFs. If interest rates rise, the value of these investments could fall sharply. The last time interest rates were near current levels, in the 1950s, Treasury bonds lost 40% of their inflation-adjusted value over the following three decades.

3. Most Americans are utterly unprepared for retirement
This stat, from a recent report by ConvergEx Group, should make you cringe:

Only 58% of us are even saving for retirement in the first place. Of that group, 60% have less than $25,000 put away. ... Almost half (48%) of workers ages 45 and up have less than $25,000 saved.

For perspective, Fidelity Investments estimates that a couple retiring this year will need $240,000 just to cover medical bills during retirement.

The ConvergEx report also found that "22% of retirees claim they're taking more than they thought they would out of their accounts, depleting their savings even faster than they anticipated."

The degree to which most Americans are unprepared for retirement is absolutely staggering. Some have accumulated pension benefits, but that's hardly reassuring. Pew Charitable Trusts estimates public pensions are underfunded by $1.38 trillion. Standard & Poor's estimates that S&P 500 companies are $355 billion short of what's needed to cover pension obligations. "Of the 500 companies, 338 have defined-benefit pension plans, and only 18 are fully funded," writes TheNew York Times.

A typical response when discussing these numbers is, "Well, many people will have to work their entire lives." But that's assuming they'll be able to. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink recently pointed out that a healthy 25-year-old female can now expect to live to near 100 years old. There are few jobs, and even fewer companies, that will accommodate an 85-year-old employee when a stronger, faster, and more eager 25-year-old is the competition.

For many, a fairly meager Social Security check will be the only retirement vehicle to fall back on. And it, too, has its own funding problems.

Scary times.

For the other side of the story, here are 50 things you should feel great about.

The article 3 Facts About the Economy That Should Freak You Out originally appeared on Fool.com.

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