Job growth stalled badly in May, the government reported Friday. Employers hired a paltry 54,000 workers, down from 232,000 in April, and the unemployment rate edged up to 9.1 percent.
Workers age 55 and over were hit particularly hard, with their jobless rate rising to 6.8 percent from 6.5 percent.
The job hunt continued to be a lengthy slog. The average length of unemployment for people 55-plus continued to rise as of May to 54.7 weeks, up from 53.6 weeks as of April. There was some relief for people under 55, however: Their average duration fell to 38.9 weeks from 39.4 weeks as of April.
After fairly robust jobs growth in the first four months of 2011, economists now fear that the recovery may be slowing down. The May jobs growth was only about half the figure forecast by economists and the lowest in nine months.
Manufacturing, which had been adding jobs steadily, fell by 5,000. Local governments shed 28,000 jobs, for a total of 446,000 lost positions since their employment peak in September 2008.
The overall unemployment rate, which rose from 9 percent in April, hit its highest level since December.
Pressure from all sides
The disappointing numbers reflect multiple drags on confidence and growth in the United States and abroad. The housing market remains depressed, and high gas prices may be biting into consumer spending. Federal stimulus spending is giving way to pressure for major budget cuts. And investors are wary that Europe's debt crisis is flaring up again.
A series of economic reports out this week suggested that bosses are once again becoming reluctant to hire, and some are downsizing.
Stock prices declined after the report was issued Friday morning.
Marisa DiNatale, director at Moody's Analytics, an economic forecasting firm outside Philadelphia, sees hope for improvement. She expects the pace of hiring to pick up steam by the end of the year.
The jobs report "is troubling, with weaker jobs growth but some of this is probably temporary — the disruption in auto manufacturing due to the Japanese earthquake," she says.
"Some of the sectors that are energy intensive and facing higher operation costs [because of the spike in gas prices] may be cutting back, but that could change now that gas prices are moving lower."