WASHINGTON -- Even as the nation's economy begins clawing its way out of the worst recession in 60 years, there are growing signs that this recovery could come with an unsettling twist: The wheels of commerce may begin to turn again without any substantial boost in jobs.

Not only is the unemployment rate -- now 9.4 percent -- likely to climb into double digits, it is expected to remain there well into next year or possibly longer, economists say, prolonging the misery of the unemployed, squeezing retailers and other businesses, and adding millions of dollars in government costs and lost productivity. It could even threaten the recovery itself.

While it's common for the jobless rate to keep climbing for a time after economic output turns positive, the last two downturns, in 1990-1991 and 2001, introduced the idea of a "jobless recovery": Many unemployed workers found that jobs as good as the ones they had lost were almost impossible to find, even though the overall economy improved.

This time, many economists say, there are new factors that could make the problem worse:

Many more layoffs in this recession have been permanent, not temporary. And mass layoffs are continuing at a record pace; last month they cost nearly 313,000 workers their jobs.

Also, instead of shrinking operations, companies have shut down whole business units or made sweeping structural changes, such as General Motors and Chrysler shuttering hundreds of dealerships and Citibank and Bank of America cutting tens of thousands of positions.

In addition, workers who survived job cuts are, on average, working fewer hours per week than ever before, according to Labor Department statistics. That means employers, even after they feel confident enough about the recovery to expand, will begin by giving more hours to existing employees instead of hiring new ones.

More troubling still is the outlook for consumers. The depth of this recession, plus widespread expectations that unemployment will keep rising into mid-2010 and remain high thereafter, may exert a powerful drag on the recovery.

Shortly after the 1990-1991 recession, said Richard Curtin, director of the University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey, consumers went out and bought houses, cars and other expensive goods on credit. That helped boost job growth in construction, manufacturing and other industries.

But this time around, because of the severe credit crunch, people won't be able to get financing as easily, while many others who can borrow will be reluctant to do so, Curtin's surveys indicate.

Instead of leading the way to a more vigorous economy, consumers are saying they want to save and keep their personal debts low. Americans socked away almost 7 percent of their after-tax income last month, the highest rate in 15 years.

"What this means is that we're going to have a slow-growing consumer sector," said Curtin. So even though the federal government's stimulus spending is likely to pick up some of the consumption slack next year, he said, "spending is expected to slow down in 2011 and disappear in 2012."

That's what scares Howard Roth, chief economist at California's Department of Finance. The nation's biggest state has been hit particularly hard by the housing meltdown and its jobless rate is already hovering at 11.5 percent.

"If you look at the situation of consumers -- home equity, it's gone away. The stock market has wiped away retirement savings. ... The consumers are not going to be able to spend as much as before," Roth said.

Analysts say there are factors that could mitigate the jobless recovery. Health care and government employers are expected to continue hiring. Green industries are emerging and will need more people.

What's more, companies today aren't seeing the kind of sharp gains in productivity that previously allowed them to expand output without adding workers; so this time, if a company wants to produce more, it may have to hire more workers.

And, with wages depressed because more people are unemployed and older people are staying on the job because their retirement accounts have been wiped out, adding to the work force will be cheaper.

Still, the demographics may work the other way too.

At Quality Float Works Inc., a Chicago area manufacturer of industrial floats and valves, employment has shrunk to 15 from 20 a year ago. Some of the remaining employees are older workers, who in ordinary times might have retired, said Sandra Westlund- Deenihan, the company's president.