NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- It's no wonder unemployed workers are getting discouraged: It's never taken longer to find a new job.
The unemployment rate fell to 9.7% in January, its lowest level since August. But the duration of unemployment reached an all-time high, according to the Labor Department's data, which dates back to 1948.
"While there are some positive signs in the jobs report, it's going to take time for the economy to recover and for hiring to pick up so people can get back to work," said Christine Riordan, a policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project.
Job seekers are now out of work for an average of 30.2 weeks, or 7-1/2 months, up from a record high of 29.1 weeks the previous month. In fact, the average duration of unemployment has notched new records for the last 10 months in a row.
With more than six job seekers for every job opening, it's not surprising that it's taking that long to find work, said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a research group based in Washington. "It's a very cruel game of musical chairs."
The danger though, is that more job seekers are at risk of seeing their unemployment benefits run out, which generally last up to 26 weeks before federal extensions kick in.
According to NELP's estimates, 11.5 million Americans are currently collecting some form of unemployment insurance but 1.2 million of those workers will no longer be eligible to collect as of March, when the current federal extensions are set to expire.
Unless Congress extends the unemployment safety net from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which is slated to expire at the end of the month, it will be increasingly hard to extricate ourselves from "a very, very deep jobs hole," NELP's Riordan said.
Overall, the Labor Department reported a loss of 20,000 in January -- much worse than expected. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com had expected a net gain of 15,000 jobs. The economy has lost 8.4 million jobs since the start of the recession in December 2007.
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