During the recent boom, New York City finally put to rest its reputation as the big bad City, transforming itself into a 24/7 place to work, live and party. College graduates invaded Manhattan’s shores for well-paying jobs in finance and less well-paying (though just as hard-partying and arguably more glamorous) positions in advertising, publishing, fashion and PR. Calendars were filled with fabulous dinners, bottle service clubs and sponsored events celebrating movie premieres, Fashion Weeks and book releases. Bankers led the charge, racking up huge tabs at trendy clubs, bringing their less fortunate friends along for the ride. The good times would never end.
Until they did. The youngsters who moved to New York to live out their professional fantasies have been smacked in the face by the current economic realities. Mass layoffs, a falling stock market and talk of a global recession that has yet to reach its nadir have brought the good times screeching to a halt. And so New York’s young professionals are experiencing their adopted home like never before: unemployed. The daily party is now a daily struggle for survival. Needless to say, the nights of $30 short rib plates at trendy restaurants and $300 bar tabs are over. These pretty young things are now forced to re-create their lives and habits lacking a source of income. But the long-term consequences are not clear. If the downturn is prolonged, it’s possible New York will no longer lure this demographic to join the rat race; alternately, the youngsters moving here will necessarily be unable to pursue a lifestyle of martinis and Manolos. One thing is clear, though: The bars and clubs that built their businesses catering to free-spending 22-year-olds will see their business suffer.
For many, like 24-year-old Natalie, being laid off came as a total surprise. She had just landed what she considered to be her dream job as a marketing assistant at a boutique hotel company. She was let go after just two months on the job. “I was really blindsided,” she told The Observer. “I was part of the first round of layoffs. It was very out of the blue.” Natalie frequented Lower East Side haunts like Spitzer’s Corner and Fat Baby several nights a week with friends, spending upwards of $60 a night on drinks. Birthdays were celebrated with group dinners at restaurants like the Stanton Social, where cocktails go for around $11 each.
But all of that has come to an end. Instead of hitting the hot spots, Natalie says she does “more things like going to someone’s house and watching a movie and drinking wine, rather than going to a restaurant or bar.” And when she does go out, she is now looking for bars offering drink specials, trying to reduce costs at every chance. “If I used to order Grey Goose, now I order well.” Not only that, but Natalie has given up cabs entirely. “I try to walk more,” she said.
Michael, a 24-year-old paralegal, jumped from a steady job at a large New York law firm to a hedge fund in August. It was a decision that, to put it diplomatically, proved to be unwise: Three months later he was out of a job. While he was employed, Michael spent weeknights drinking $6 domestic beers with co-workers at midtown bars. On weekends, he would join friends at various downtown spots. Like Natalie, the fabulous New York City life he once knew no longer exists.
Recalling his first six months in New York, he painted a picture of life as one big party; he spent long nights in bars and clubs with a large group of friends and “people buying drinks for people.” Now, he says, “it’s calmed down.” He recently moved from Manhattan into a Williamsburg apartment with three college friends, and says the new neighborhood and living situation have helped keep costs down. Michael now “spends a lot more time at home.” He added: “Instead of going out to dinner and then drinks, we go grill, get alcohol, invite some friends over, and then go out later.” And while he hasn’t downgraded his beverage quality, he has cut back on quantity. “Going out later is my answer to having less money,” he said.
Alexandra, also 24, had spent one year working as a management consultant for a U.K.- based firm when she got the bad news. A hiring freeze by the company made her anxious about her own security, but when the ax finally fell on her, “it was a shock.” She had been going out for dinner and drinks four or five times a week, frequenting David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar and sipping $10 cocktails at the Randolph in Nolita. But instead of cutting back, she is using her forced freedom to go out even more.
Alexandra says she has “been drinking a lot more, because I don’t have to work.” That being said, “the places aren’t as nice and they are much less expensive.” To save money, she and her friends are “pre-gaming” a lot more, buying alcohol and drinking at a designated apartment to cheaply get buzzed before hitting the town.
In fact, many see a silver lining to the economic downturn (though they are perhaps optimistic). Michael, the paralegal, told The Observer, “I am not alone,” adding that it has become a bonding experience in his circle of friends. The group talks “about the lunch specials we were going to take advantage of.”
Natalie, the former marketing assistant, has picked up shifts as a cocktail waitress and restaurant hostess to help pay the bills. She has also been lucky enough to find temporary freelance assignments in public relations, but knows that none of these are permanent solutions. But she thinks that her generation will benefit from the downfall.
She says that her friends have “never had to suffer. … No one I know has ever had to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” She thinks it will pay off in the long term, saying, “I think it’s creating good habits. People are learning how to save more. I find myself learning how to not be so wasteful.”
Still, if anything, the recently unemployed are, like Alexandra, living more freely, if more cheaply. They’re going out during the week and staying out late without fearing dreadful hangovers at work the next day. And while they do know that without a job, they won’t be able to stay here forever, now is not the time to wallow in sadness. There is, after all, partying to do. As Alexandra explains, “I am having a lot more fun!” Until the unemployment checks run out.