Gen X Embraces the Recession By Going to Plan B: Layoff Lust

For months, John McCarron dreamed about losing his job. A post-production coordinator at a film production and distribution company, the 26-year-old Mr. McCarron had made no secret of his dissatisfaction at work. His interest in his job had suffered a “serious decline,” he said. He resented the company’s “analmanagement” and complained about the increased workload and responsibilities that had come his way as the increasingly successful company took on bigger films and more bureaucracy.

The more Mr. McCarron thought about being laid off, the more, he said, he wanted it to happen. So on Nov. 26, in the thick of one of the scariest job markets in memory, he shared his dream with the company president. Mr. McCarron, who requested that the identity of his employer be withheld, said his boss “wasn’t surprised-just concerned and curious.”

Nonetheless, he granted Mr. McCarron’s wish.

“I felt a sense of relief and excitement,” said Mr. McCarron, who begins collecting unemployment in January while he attempts to launch his own film and music production company. “I left early that day and bought a pizza and some beer for me and my roommates in Brooklyn. It was a great feeling. I fell asleep dreaming about my business plan, my scripts, my videos, my options and my immediate future for the first time in two years of being wrapped in my gainfully employed security blanket. The grass was definitely looking greener, and I felt smarter for some reason.”

Mr. McCarron is not alone. While most New Yorkers wonder whether their jobs will disappear into the maw of the God-

zilla-like recession banging its way through the city, a substantial number of Generation Xers say they’re not afraid of joining the unemployment line (if they haven’t already done so). Call them naïve or just plain nuts, but these young urban professionals seem to be more enthusiastic about leaving their jobs than they ever were about landing them during the booming Clinton 90’s.

Espresso & Chapstick

Not surprisingly, they say the trauma of Sept. 11 led them to realize they were living treadmill lives. “It sometimes takes an extreme circumstance to clarify your thinking,” said a 29-year-old Harvard graduate who edged herself out of a high-powered consulting job in Manhattan last month. “Sept. 11 reminded you of where your priorities should be. This year, there was a long period of time when [my husband and I] hardly saw each other. When you realize that you’re not living your life the way you should, you have a problem.”

A 26-year-old fashion worker experienced a similar revelation after the World Trade Center towers fell. “I had to go to work on the 13th,” she said, “and everyone was asking me, ‘Is it going to be hard to concentrate?’ It seemed so stupid afterward, everyone so worked up about coats.” Sept. 11, she added, also alleviated the stigma of being unemployed. “There was definitely a rethinking among my group of people, the mid-20’s,” she said. “People are willing to accept unemployment and take a break and use it as a vacation.”

So while the rest of New York is stocking up on espresso beans and Chapstick in preparation for a serious stretch of hyperproductive bum-kissing, some Gen Xers are chasing dreams while collecting unemployment. At a time when so many of their colleagues and friends are being laid off anyway, they’ve figured that now’s the time to live on a shoestring, retrench and figure what they really want to do with their lives.

For instance, Mr. McCarron’s early business plan involves documenting bar mitzvahs and weddings. “Eventually we will make features and records,” he wrote confidently in a recent e-mail. He also acknowledged that he’ll be looking for a steady replacement job, but this time one that he feels is “doing something vital in the film industry.”

Knitwear Fantasies

Similar professional epiphanies are becoming more common among young New Yorkers. Hannah Wallace, a 29-year-old travel-magazine editor, said layoffs were the No. 1 topic of discussion at the last monthly gathering of her reading group in November. The members, who are all in their late 20’s and early 30’s, worried about magazines that had folded, the Guggenheim’s recent decision to let go of 20 percent of its staff and the number of friends who were losing their jobs. “But then someone piped up and said she wouldn’t mind losing hers,” Ms. Wallace remembered.

“Suddenly, the room was abuzz: Everyone had some kind of fantasy life they wanted to explore, and they felt that getting the ax might be all the encouragement they’d need,” she said. “One woman suggested going into the knitwear business. Others spoke of their secret wish to freelance full-time.”

And at least one New Yorker just wanted to reconnect with her harp. “I hadn’t been able to play the harp at all when I was working at Merrill Lynch,” said Rachel Sharrar, a 25-year-old Yale economics major, describing the ways in which her life has improved since she lost her job seven months ago. “Now I’ve been playing very regularly.”

Ms. Sharrar attained this state of unemployed bliss after working for Merrill Lynch’s investment-banking department for a year and doing a stint at the Internet consultant start-up Organic Inc. Axed in late March, she lived nearly four months on severance and benefits before turning to the unemployment lines. Besides plinking strings to her heart’s content, she’s discovered the joys of cooking and will begin training as a literacy tutor in January. She even had time to plan her wedding and move into her fiancé’s Union Square apartment.

Although she gave some thought to job-hunting when she came back from a vacation in Greece on Sept. 3, she packed away the résumés and cover letters a week later.

“I didn’t even feel like looking,” she said. “When you’re in the rut of ‘Got to get to work, get to the gym, get home, get to dinner,’ you have no time to consider what you’re really doing in life. Not having a job allows you to reflect.”

Ms. Sharrar said that her fiancé, a banker at Merrill Lynch, has been supportive of her unemployment, though he sometimes worries that his bride-to-be has a little too much time for introspection. But Ms. Sharrar, who grew up watching her mother, an emergency-room doctor, work long hours, is looking for something else in life. “She cooks, exercises, sews; I don’t know where she finds the time, but she never sleeps,” she said of her mother. “I don’t want to never sleep.”

Weaned Off Work

Meanwhile, the Harvard-educated consultant is taking some time off before she begins what she envisions as a more pro-social life filled with volunteering and maybe a job in politics, or something related to the city’s recovery. She said she spent much of the summer thinking about quitting, then decided to wean herself from the work force. She began signing up for more pro bono work at her company and taking smaller, less lucrative projects. She left in the third round of layoffs, which enabled her to be in a better financial situation than if she’d quit.

“My hesitations [about quitting] were part financial, part not knowing what I wanted to do-which is why people go into consulting in the first place,” she said. “But it [became] increasingly obvious to me that I wouldn’t figure out what I wanted to do if I remained in the office. Every week, there were a couple nights where I would come home around 2, 3 in the morning. So we came to grips with our financial situation and realized that if we took certain steps, we’d be fine, even if I didn’t have another job lined up.”

The consultant acknowledged that others might be in a less fortunate financial situation and thus not share her Zen way of looking at unemployment. But she also knows that her choice is not without its pitfalls. “You have to have a lot of faith in yourself to be willing to take the risk,” she said. “Others tend to stay in things longer than they should.”

In New York, where career is identity, the young and unemployed say the stigma of joblessness is lessened by the fact that the entire country is suffering from a recession. Being idle at the same time that so many others are getting the boot-or, at the very least, having their travel and entertainment accounts slashed-is not so rough on the ego.

No More Nobu

“In a way it’s easier, because everyone I know is scrimping and saving,” said Joanne Ramos, a 28-year-old former investment banker who’s trying to break into journalism. “I would have felt bad staying at home and seeing them go out to Nobu. But everyone is going to the cheapy restaurants.”

In September 2000, Ms. Ramos, a Princeton graduate, finished a two-year training program at a leveraged-buyout shop. She’d been working in finance in the city for four years, and during that time she’d developed mixed feelings about the industry. “Because you get paid a good amount of money, there’s something we call ‘golden handcuffs,'” she said. But when she did a little self-administered career counseling by looking at what sections of the Sunday New York Times she read first, she discovered that “I had to force myself to read Data Bank.”

After ruling out business school, Ms. Ramos traveled for a year and tried to figure out what she wanted to do. She returned to the city during the summer, when employment rates were already falling.

“The economy was pretty bad, so I thought I should start interviewing at finance companies,” she said. “But I decided I couldn’t do it. If it’s a bad time to find any job, why not have a hard time trying to find something I love instead of something I don’t?”

Setting her sights on journalism, Ms. Ramos set out to meet people in the field, hoping to get tips on how to start on her new career. With student loans to pay off, she supports herself by doing consulting work with her former boss, temping and freelance fact-checking. Living on a budget here and abroad for a year, she said, also taught her that she didn’t need to make a ton of money.

Outside the Fortress

“It looked so scary to be outside the fortress,” Ms. Ramos said of her cushy job in the financial world. “But it’s really actually not bad, except for the money worries. It’s tough to really break away from something that is safe and secure, especially right now, but ultimately I want a life where I love my job.”

Although most of her friends and family have been understanding about her soul-searching, Ms. Ramos said that in the unsentimental financial world, her story has been greeted with an attitude of “oh, that’s great-follow your heart, honey.”

“It’s a little belittling,” Ms. Ramos said. “Most people somewhere inside want to do stuff like this, but they don’t. So they live vicariously through me.”

Of course, it’s not the first time New Yorkers are giving their careers second thoughts. It’s a fantasy most of us entertain at one point or another, as our parents did before us.

But these thoughts usually come during boom times, not the bust. Strangely, the combined effects of the recession and Sept. 11 seem to have strengthened the resolve of those twenty somethings to find a job that offers fulfillment as well as a paycheck.

“After Sept. 11, I realized that I should really do what I want to do,” said Sophie Laffont. A 28-year-old Brown graduate who’s lived in New York for five years, Ms. Laffont resigned in November from what she described as an unfulfilling job at the publicity firm of Harrison & Shriftman.

“I’m worried about the recession, but this was more important to me. I didn’t want to play it safe anymore; I’ve been playing it safe for so long. I wanted to know that I’d tried.”

Ms. Laffont doesn’t really know what it is she wants to do yet, but she’s pretty sure it involves moving to London and finding a creatively fulfilling job. She’s giving herself a month and a half to figure that out, during which time she plans to take a two-week trip to London to investigate her options there. If worst comes to worst, she has a temp job lined up in New York in January.

‘Time Was Running Out’

“I knew all along that this wasn’t really the perfect job for me,” Ms. Laffont said of her production gig, which involved organizing events like the Lancel store opening on Madison Avenue last April. “I thought I would be moving forward, that it would take me to the job of tomorrow. But after a while, I was still unhappy and unfulfilled. Finally, I felt time was running out. I just didn’t want to wait anymore.”

Her parents and friends, she said, have been very understanding. That wasn’t the case just a few generations ago, but after years of therapy, the parents of Generation X tend to be more in tune with their inner child and therefore have large reserves of understanding regarding their children’s laissez-faire work ethic.

“Grandfathers and great uncles sold air conditioners for their whole lives because that’s what they needed to do to make money,” said Nikki Columbus, a 26-year-old Harvard social-studies major who was laid off from her associate editor’s job at Harry N. Abrams Inc. on the day before Thanksgiving, but isn’t unhappy about it. “The generations that follow now have the time to figure out what they want to do. People have families later. We don’t have anybody to support, so being laid off isn’t such an enormous problem. It’s not like we were doing the jobs we wanted to do for the rest of our lives anyway.”

And Sept. 11 may have deepened those reserves of parental empathy. “Everyone who was in New York on Sept. 11, their parents were all so thrilled they were alive,” said the 26-year-old fashion worker, who recently quit her job and is applying to grad school while temping at her father’s finance company.

“Our parents are much more laxist; they’re like, ‘Take a break-have a nice time.'”

Of course, those kinds of brave notions are predicated on the assumption that the economy will turn around sooner rather than later. Most of the Gen Xers who spoke to The Observer said they were hoping to be back at work in the next three to six months, and will really start to worry if that doesn’t happen. “Sometimes I feel like I’m totally lost, like I’ve fallen behind,” said Ms. Ramos. “Maybe I’ll fail miserably, or realize I miss finance, but I’m not about to go back to it now.”