How bad (really) is 8% unemployment?

By past standards, the forecast jobless rate isn't too terrible. But you won't like how it's going to feel.

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By Stephen Gandel, Money Magazine senior writer

(Money Magazine) -- Nervous about your job? Join the club. Recent polls show that 30% of Americans are worried about being laid off. Yet most of them won't be.

Economists expect the unemployment rate to hit 8% in 2009. That's more than today's 6.5%, but it's no more than it was in the early '90s and far lower than the rate in the not-so-distant recession of the early '80s (11%). Why do today's projections make you feel so scared?

It's taking white-collar workers longer to find jobs. Thomas Lam, an economist at the Singapore-based United Overseas Bank, tracks employment flows, which look at the number of people moving from the ranks of those receiving a regular paycheck to those who aren't and vice versa.

Currently, people out of work have just a 22% chance of landing a new job within a given month. That already makes this a worse market for job seekers than any since the 1990s, which is as far back as Lam's data go. And we aren't at 8% yet.

Some jobs will never be replaced. Economists call it misal-location of human capital. That's a fancy term for the fact that for decades the U.S. has been producing too many M.B.A.s and not enough health-care employees.

Meanwhile, the financial sector is shrinking and tech jobs are being shipped overseas. "People are moving down the pay scale," says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

The outlook for recovery is slow. Many experts believe that the economy will bottom out in the third quarter of 2009. But the job market may not recover until the following year or even longer.

Okay, your fears aren't unfounded. But there are steps you can take to protect yourself. It's possible to shore up your job prospects, even when you're over 50. And remember, we've recovered from past recessions looking quite sprightly -- and will do so again.  To top of page

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