Okay, I’ve sitting on this article for a while and have decided there’s probably NO good time to run it — so I might as well just throw it out there this week and get it over with, in light of some of the scary stuff that’s been happening on Wall Street lately, as well as my desire to explore the topic of career management from all possible angles.

(Editor’s Note: If you’re in a bit of funk in your job search these days, you may want to skip this one.  It’s not the most uplifting post!)

Here’s the “burning question” that went through my mind the other day after getting several calls in a row from folks who have been out of work for over a year, despite NO previous history of unemployment:

“What if 8-10% unemployment is the ‘new normal’ and we’re never going to go back to the days when most people could go to college, work hard, and expect a decently rewarding and successful career to follow?  Would knowing this for a fact change the way you look and manage your life/career/future in any way?”

Again, just to clarify, I have so special reason to imagine the above scenario is going to come true.  But given the turbulence we’ve all been living through these past few years, it’s certainly a notion that’s within the realm of possibility.  Without question, I think those of us “older” professionals in the Baby Boomer and Generation X ranks have been conditioned since birth to believe in the infallibility of the U.S. economy — and to assume that “what goes down must come up” in the sense that the market, despite its recent jitters, will eventually bounce back into full fighting form.  In my gut, I keep telling myself that if we simply stay patient, and ride this puppy out, happy days will be here again.  Would you agree with me on this?  Is your sense, too, that as tight as things seem right now, we can all expect better days to be around the corner, if we just weather the storm?

And yet, what if this assumption is totally unfounded?  What if things never bounce back in a significant way?  What if the fundamental nature of the world economy has changed, America’s best days (at least economically) are now behind us, and our standard of living is now going to continue trending down off its historical peak?  Will society adapt to this new reality, and learn to live with it, or will we all just continue to waltz around in a grumpy, unpleasant fog?

This question seems worth kicking around, at least as a “thought experiment” of sorts, given my observation that many people seem to be holding off being happy (for lack of a better way to put it) until the economy gets back on solid footing.   Many people right now (as well as organizations) seem afraid to commit, plan, and live their lives in a confident, purposeful way given the conditions we’ve been facing out there over the last few years.  Everybody’s in a hyper-cautious holding pattern, waiting for something to change.  But maybe all of this waiting, hoping, and assumptive thinking is in vain.  Maybe we’re witnessing a permanent structural adjustment to the economy and the sooner we adapt to this new paradigm, the better off we’ll all be.

Just to add fuel to the fire, here’s a recent article from Thomas Friedman that touches on this notion briefly, at least in the sense that he highlights some aspects of the job market that now seem “permanently” different than before.  You’ll find some of his statistics pretty sobering.  And yet, for what it’s worth, I respectfully disagree with some of his conclusions, since he seems to equate the U.S. economy entirely with the technology sector — which, to me, ignores the huge number of other industries and job sectors (e.g. hospitality, transportation, medical care, etc.) that aren’t quite as subject to being outsourced or delivered over an Internet connection.

So again, as usual, I’m just “throwing it out there” and seeing what you all think.  I’m no oracle and for all I know, the market is going to reboot itself sooner than we think and we’ll be back on an upward track, based on whatever mysterious forces affect such things.  This summer has certainly been a promising one in terms of job creation in the Puget Sound area, if nothing else, from what I’ve observed.

As the years of this current recession stretch on, however, I’m just wondering how long the emotional fence-sitting among individuals and organizations can hold out.  If the current macroeconomic trends continue, how long will we cling to the notion that this situation may be an abnormality, versus the “new normal” in its own right?  And if this is the case, will younger generations grow up perfectly adjusted to these conditions and figure out how to live happily within them, even if the rest of us yearn for the stability/security of the good old days?

Hopefully it won’t come to this, but it’s got me thinking, at least…