The US labor force has been split into two groups: the relieved and the desperate. Those who have a job are less likely to lose it than at any point in at least 14 years, while those who are unemployed are in trouble: The jobless are staying so for longer periods. Of the 13.9 million Americans the government says were unemployed last month, about 1.8 million had been without work for at least 99 weeks—essentially 2 years.
That's nearly double the number in January 2010. Yet the deep job cuts of the recession have long since ended: For all of 2010, planned layoffs hit a 13-year low, analysts note. Retailers, in particular, have stopped shedding workers. Stores cut fewer than 5,800 jobs last month—that's only about one-third the number of a year earlier, and it's far fewer than the nearly 54,000 in January 2009 at the depths of the recession. Yet employers still aren't ready to start hiring aggressively. A government survey of business payrolls released Friday showed a net gain of only 36,000 jobs in January—barely one-fourth the number needed just to keep pace with population growth.