The job market might look solid on paper — unemployment is low, job openings are high — but the reality for many Americans on the job hunt tells a different story. 

LinkedIn feeds are crowded with layoff announcements. Mentions of recruiters ghosting job applicants have more than doubled on Glassdoor since before the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“It’s frustrating and disorienting — finding a new job has never felt this difficult,” says Javier Serrano, who left his job as a software trainer at Parcel Pending by Quadient, a smart locker company, in May, and who has applied to hundreds of jobs since. Serrano had been in his previous role for about eight months.

Some companies have asked him to go through several rounds of interviews and then disappeared; others sent him take-home tests or asked him to record video responses to AI-generated questions. He has not received any offers.

Serrano, 50, says he initially expected to find a new job within six months, but now, he’s expecting to be out of work for close to a year. He recently applied for a job delivering groceries for a store near his house in Orlando to help cover his living expenses.

“I’m optimistic that things will work out,” says Serrano. “I just think the numbers are underselling how hard it is for job seekers right now.”

Economists and recruiters say lingering expectations from the “great resignation” and businesses’ fears about an imminent recession could be to blame for job seekers’ malaise. 

Jobseekers have whiplash from the ‘great resignation’

A major reason more people are burned out from searching for a new job could be due to unrealistic or outdated expectations.

“How people feel about the job market is informed by their recent experiences with the job market,” Glassdoor lead economist Daniel Zhao recently told CNBC. “In 2021 and 2022, there were labor shortages, so [employers] were offering all kinds of perks and benefits to try to get people in the door. So even if 2024 is shaping up to be a relatively healthy labor market by recent comparison, it doesn’t feel quite as strong.”

Nearly 70% of job seekers say their current search is more difficult than their last one, according to a recent survey of more than 1,500 candidates from the staffing firm Aerotek.

“If you want to get hired in this environment, you need to have a different mindset than you did in 2021,” says Bert Bean, CEO of the staffing firm Insight Global. “What some job seekers aren’t realizing is that employers are a lot more cost-conscious and less willing to make concessions with pay or remote work than they were two years ago.” 

High inflation and the threat of a potential downturn are casting a dark shadow over the labor market 

For much of 2023, companies felt like a recession was lurking around the corner and pulled back on hiring as a result — those fears aren’t gone yet, says Zhao. 

“Business leaders are still concerned that a recession is possible, even if it’s not 100% certain,” he tells CNBC Make It. “They don’t want to overhire into a recession and then have to lay people off.” 

Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry, one of the world’s largest hiring and recruiting firms, likens companies’ current hiring approach to driving in a hailstorm. 

“No one can figure out what’s ahead, which means you have to make more decisions blindly,” he explains. “Normally, economists will predict a tough market for two of three quarters and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but this time it’s been almost 24 months of predictions of doom and gloom.”

That uncertainty, he adds, is causing “a lot of fatigue” in boardrooms across the U.S.

As more companies pause hiring, they’re trimming their talent acquisition teams, too, says Kaplan, which means there are fewer people to manage job postings and respond to applicants, further exacerbating confusion in the job market.

For employers to feel more confident about the economy and expand hiring, interest rates need to come down, says Kaplan. Until then, he says companies are in a “wait and see” period. 

“The prevailing sentiment is, ‘let’s talk in Q2,’ but that could easily be pushed to Q3 or Q4,” Kaplan adds. “It’s a frustrating time for candidates and an equally frustrating time for businesses who can’t hire the talent they need … it’s just a mess.”

It’s still a good time to find a new, better job — in some industries

Despite the labor market’s current challenges, there are still plenty of opportunities for people who want a new and better job. 

The labor market posted 9 million openings in December, and there are still roughly 1.4 open jobs for every unemployed person. 

Even though tech and media companies are slashing jobs, Bean says other industries like government, health care and construction have increased hiring in recent months, offering more stable positions that could prove resilient in a potential recession. 

Kaplan agrees, calling these industries a “safer bet” for job seekers, even if some, like health care, construction and manufacturing are still recovering the jobs they lost during the pandemic.

The smartest approach jobseekers can take right now, he adds, is to be persistent, and stay the course. “If sending in 400 applications hasn’t landed you an interview, submit 600, or use your free time learning a new technical skill you can add to your resume,” he says. “Things won’t stay this hard forever.”