In the 10 months since Kathe Cronin was laid off from Sprint Corp., she's come up empty trying to replace the $52,000 salary, three weeks paid vacation and the self-confidence she lost along with the job.
So the cubicle veteran changed course, signing on this fall at a just-hatched subdivision near her home in Harrisonville, Mo., and staking her economic bets on a newly issued real estate license. Still, her first check — no salary, just sales commission — is probably months away.
"As far as the economic recovery for me, I haven't seen it," says Cronin, whose worksite now is a handful of half-built homes edged by cow pasture. "But if I just can just hold on and make it through this crunch …."
Cronin's uncertainty says a lot about the economy and the people who make it work as 2003 nears an end.
After almost three years of painful job cuts, factory closings and thin corporate profits, this was the year the battered economy finally began to come back.
But many of the workers and businesses hit hardest by the downturn can only visualize a rebound. Even some who have seen a pickup in their fortunes remain doubtful about whether the turnaround can sustain itself.
Recovery Not Felt on ‘Main Street’ USA
For scores still out of work, even those looking ahead to a career change, the talk of an economic recovery is as credible as a mirage.
"You've heard the term fuzzy logic? I think that's what we're getting from these economists," says Michael Williams of Portsmouth, N.H., a software developer who has been stringing together contract work since losing his full-time job in March of last year. "And you're getting it from employed economists, not the ones (jobless workers) who have been out there for a while." That perception gap — between the rosy figures that signal a recovery and clouded public sentiment — marks a key juncture in all business cycles, economists say.
But the fact that people remain so uncertain two years after the recession officially ended shows this rebound is still quite fragile, with an upside most people will not see until well into next year.
"You can see the turn in the statistics, but in terms of when it's felt on Main Street, it could be some time," said Anthony Chan, chief economist with Banc One Investment Advisors in Columbus, Ohio.
Extended Job Searches
The rebound is documented in a raft of recent data. After showing modest growth early in the year, the economy raced ahead at an annual rate of 8.2 percent in the third quarter, the fastest pace in nearly two decades.
But while businesses have increased spending on equipment, they remain reluctant to do so on people. For the majority who kept their jobs, that means longer hours and sometimes doing the work of two. Business have held the line on pay raises, trimmed benefits, and left people feeling squeezed.
The key remains new jobs, economists say.
"It's really the rebound in employment that matters for most people. They might be able to see business getting better, but they really feel it when job growth improves," said Richard Berner, chief economist for Morgan Stanley in New York.
The lag was relatively short in most past recessions. But it has stretched out this time, the result of the so-called "jobless recovery," 22 months in which the economy grew even as employment shrank.