As the jobless rate nears 10 percent, even those fortunate enough to be employed fret about keeping their jobs. But for those without them, it's a daily struggle with emotional and economic distress.
"It's hard to maintain your focus that you're a valuable member of society when you go three months and nobody really wants to employ you," says David O'Bryan, 59, of Barre, Vt.
To cope with the stress, O'Bryan jots down his thoughts in a journal he carries around. He's seeking a new career in the education field. In one recent entry, he wrote:
"I'm finding the process of trying to get into schools both tedious and frustrating. I wish I could have some concrete feedback on why I'm not being hired. Overweight? No para-educator certificate in effect? No confidence in my ability to perform the job?"
The economy is showing signs of being on the mend. Yet that's hardly reassuring to the unemployed this Labor Day weekend. The job market is in lousy shape and will stay that way for a while.
The nation's jobless rate jumped to a 26-year high of 9.7 percent in August from 9.4 percent in July. It's expected to top 10 percent this year and keep climbing into part of next year before falling back. The post-World War II high was 10.8 percent at the end of 1982.
And it could take four years or more for the unemployment rate to fall back down to a normal level of about 5 percent.
Gregory Przybylski, 46, of suburban Milwaukee has grown increasingly anxious since losing his job as a machine operator in March 2008.
"It's getting scary," said Przybylski, a bachelor who has spent the past several months studying for a high school equivalency degree. "I'm just hoping to be working by Christmas."
Przybylski said he's using his time to study and improve himself so he'll be ready once the economy turns around. But he fears being thrust into a new career after spending so many years as a machinist.
"I've been doing this since 1980 — that's what I know," he said, slowly shaking his head.
"It's stressful whether you have a job or not," says Patricia Drentea, associate professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "If you are out of a job, it can be demoralizing to know that the tide has not yet turned. For those still in jobs, there is the constant worry that there is going to be more layoffs."
The worst recession since World War II has claimed a net total of 6.9 million jobs — and more losses are expected, casting a pall over this year's Labor Day.
The strains of rising unemployment are making people — those with jobs and those without — more frugal. And they're likely to remain cautious spenders in coming months, crimping the budding economic recovery.
Ethan Fierro of Chicago has managed to survive a round of layoffs at his accounting firm. But he's not taking his job for granted and is clamping down on the household budget, and cutting out the little extras.
"Now, movie nights have to be Netflix nights," says Fierro, 33, who has a wife and a 1-year-old son.
Chrysantheum Dickens, 43, of Tampa, a church pastor who also works in sales at an information technology company, shops at a Salvation Army store for school clothes for her sons.
"It's a different age now, and you never know what's going to happen," she says.
Jobseeker Ileen Goldberg of Tampa stopped scheduling doctor's appointments and sold her car to save money and help make ends meet.
"It's horrible out there," says Goldberg, 48, who lost her job as an administrative assistant in June. "I have no prospects, so every day it's a mental battle when you get up."
Laid off eight months ago from her secretarial job at a health clinic, Mary Pat Didier, 60, is preparing her five grandchildren for the possibility she might have to move away from her home in Rockford, Ill., in hopes of finding employment.
Didier has begun applying for jobs in Chicago and in Milwaukee. So far, no luck. Her unemployment benefits are set to expire in January, but she hopes to qualify for extended aid. She's burned through her retirement savings.
"There's no place to go from here," Didier said. "I'm too young for Medicare, but I ended up with no health (insurance). I get frustrated, but I can't give up, so I try to not to dwell in it," she adds. "I finally know what it's like to live in the moment."
An Associated Press-GfK poll last month found that 43 percent of Americans were worried "some" or "a lot" about losing their job, even though the pace of layoffs has slowed. And statistically, that wasn't much changed from the results in February, when job losses were much heavier.
A growing number of people have grown so frustrated that they've stopped looking for work. The number of such "discouraged workers" totaled 758,000 in August — nearly twice as many as a year ago. Because they've abandoned their job searches, they aren't included in the government's count of the 14.9 million people who are unemployed.
If discouraged workers and people who have settled for part-time work are included, the unemployment rate would have been 16.8 percent in August, the highest on records dating to 1994.
"Right now, there are six people unemployed for each job opening," says economist Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute. "If you are not successful in finding work, you are in a cruel game of musical chairs with six people circling around one chair."
Earlier this week, Federal Reserve officials said they expected the pace of the recovery to pick up in 2010, but the likely strength of the upturn is uncertain because of concerns about how much consumers will borrow and spend.
A "poor" job market, evaporated wealth from home and stock values, hard-to-get credit and wages that aren't likely to rise much anytime soon mean Americans face "considerable headwinds," Fed officials said. How consumers behave is crucial to the recovery because their spending accounts for roughly 70 percent of economic activity.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis' advice to the unemployed: "I would tell those workers and families not to lose sight of hope." She urges them to seek the skills, education and training needed for new jobs. But she acknowledges these are tough times.
"Americans are facing monumental challenges," she says. "I know that every job lost, every hour cut from the workweek, means another family having to make difficult decisions."
AP Writers Christine Armario in Tampa, John Curran in Montpelier, Vt., Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee and Tammy Webber in Chicago contributed to this report.