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Optimistic Jobseekers "Electing" A Come Back?

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"The American, by nature, is optimistic. He is experimental, an inventor and a builder who builds best when called upon to build greatly."

--John F. Kennedy

Does Barack Obama’s convincing win trumpet the resurgence of the "Optimistic American" and by extension, the "Optimistic Jobseeker"?

Regardless of what they may think of our governmental policies, when foreigners describe “average” Americans, they frequently remark upon our determined positivity. In fact, to the outsider, American rosiness can seem rather naïve, a bit forced and not infrequently annoying, like the 1913 children’s book heroine Pollyanna, who greets every setback with a nauseating buoyancy she calls “playing the Glad Game.”

But American optimism is the real backbone of our economy. We are a legion of entrepreneurs, originators, innovators, researchers, discoverers, bettors, experimenters. In our national myth, it’s “Go big or go home,” and there is no shame in failure. As evidenced by our attitudes toward saving and spending, our debt and credit reliance is interlaced with our confidence.

If we can’t quite afford the mortgage on that three-bedroom we just bought, surely we will be able to by next year. Promotions come through. Stock portfolios rise. The heedlessly uninsured do not break their legs, and hurricanes don’t hit the same state, let alone the same house, two years in a row. American society is not comfortable with fear, pessimism or “negativity” as a prolonged state. What our foreign critics deplore—that we avert our eyes from the unpleasant —is in times of crisis, this society’s self-protection.

That said, in the face of war, market meltdowns, foreclosures, job insecurities and a looming recession, one would expect a severe waning of the hopeful self-assurance we hold so close to our national identity. Quite surprisingly, no.

An October 2008 poll by Pew Research Center found that while only 11 percent of Americans are actually satisfied with the current state of the union, the majority are expectant that things will get better. Notes Andrew Kohut, who directed the research: "There is no evidence that fundamental American optimism has eroded in the face of the financial crisis. Even after a week of some of the largest stock market declines since the Great Depression, 64 percent of the public say that 'as Americans, we can always find ways to solve our problems and get what we want.' That is up from 59 percent since December 2004, shortly after the last presidential election.”

The Pew survey further notes, "There is little indication that the nation's financial crisis has triggered public panic or despair." Indeed, 56 percent of the respondents believe the federal government can patch up the economy, while 59 percent expect their finances to improve over the next year.

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  • Count jobseekers among the hopeful masses. When career network Beyond.com polled more than 38,000 professionals earlier this year, 86 percent believed that the outcome of this election will improve both the economy and job market. An October poll found that 53 percent of those looking for a new job planned to vote for Barack Obama. Unlike many national polls, the jobseeker survey wasn’t even close; only 33 percent of participants said that they were voting for Senator John McCain. (This is in marked contrast to the results of a poll gauging the pulse of the nation’s CEOs. When Chief Executive magazine queried 751 CEOs across the U.S., 74 percent preferred McCain's policies over Obama's.)

    Whether jobseeker support for Barack Obama was a generic, flee-in-the-other-direction response to hard times, or a conscious belief in Obama’s ability to effect change in the employment landscape, will be minutely dissected in days to come. But the poll spread indicates that something bigger was going on, that perhaps jobseekers equated voting for a conversion in leadership with personal agency in their own careers; the “At least I did something differently, for good or for bad” school of self-preservation. Being proactive in the face of uncertainty. How very American.

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    Anu Rao is a Senior Writer at Vault.com. She has her BA in English from the University of California at Berkeley, and is a Masters candidate at NYU, studying Communications, Media and Marketing.

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