June 3, 2009 | By Peter Jamison
The text message came on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Alexis Mansinne, a 25-year-old event planner for the chic architectural magazine Dwell, was home sick with strep throat. Rolling out of bed, she perched over her laptop computer at the kitchen table in the apartment she shares with three roommates in the Inner Sunset. The text was from her supervisor at work, asking her to call in. When she got on the phone, Alexis found herself on an unexpected conference call with three office bigwigs: her boss, the magazine president, and the director of operations. The president began explaining that there was going to be a shake-up at the office, in part because of the company's new financial commitments to a travel mag, AFAR, which would be launched in the summer of 2009.
"I'm thinking, 'They're going to lay off our coordinator. They're going to lay off our assistant,'" Mansinne recalls. It was no secret that the economy sucked. As the gears ground down and springs began popping skyward on the heretofore-mighty engine of American capitalism, no one's job, home, or 401(k) was as safe as it once had been.
That doesn't mean people see the ax drifting in their own direction. And the Petaluma native with dirty blond hair, almond-shaped green eyes, and a proper-but-not-stuffy demeanor loved her Devil-Wears-Prada dream job in magazine marketing, a career that had taken her on business trips to New York City, Los Angeles, and Denver. It had given her a sense of identity and provided psychological ballast in the uncharted waters she had plied since graduating from UC Santa Barbara.
On that fall morning six months ago, that was all about to change. Mansinne listened in disbelief as her higher-ups told her she was being let go.
"Not having eaten or slept in two days, and with golf balls in my throat, I burst into tears," she says. "I just kept saying, 'What? You're laying me off?'"
They were also asking her to come into the office, strep throat and all, to sign some legal documents acknowledging that this painful conversation had taken place. What could she do? Mansinne threw on some clothes, skipping the shower and the makeup, and made what would be her last commute.
The weeks that followed were tough. She wanted to find new work in marketing as soon as possible. She worried about money. (She actually filed for unemployment insurance on the day she was laid off.) Then something changed.
"I immediately started looking for jobs doing the same thing," she says. "And then I remembered that that wasn't even what I wanted to do before that." At UCSB, she had done a stint as a peer advisor in the communications department; now she began thinking that she might want to take some time to make the transition to a more socially redeeming career path.
Meanwhile, more than 50 weeks stretched before her, underwritten with $450 weekly unemployment checks from Uncle Sam. Why stress? "I decided that I would ... take advantage of being unemployed," Mansinne says. "And I would call it funemployment."
Funemployment. Paycation. The Unemploymentality. Every generation has an argot to describe the confusing terrain of joblessness — the dole, deadbeat dads, UB40, and so on — and the lexicon of younger casualties in the most severe American economic downturn since World War II speaks volumes.
Here's how the blog Recessionwire defines "funemployment": "A period of joblessness that you actually enjoy — maybe you get to lay out, sleep in, work out, read up. It helps to have savings, severance, or an unemployment check to help pay the bills. We're hearing this word used more and more, especially as people realize they may not be able to find a new job right away, so they might as well try to enjoy the time off."
To anybody who reads a newspaper, this may seem strange indeed. Mass media coverage of the Great Recession brought on by the precipitous decline in the housing market and subsequent crisis in financial institutions has been all doom and gloom. In April, San Francisco County's unemployment rate stood at 8.8 percent, according to the California Employment Development Department (EDD) — below the statewide average of 11 percent but still mirroring the national rate, which was 8.9 percent for the same period. But the news isn't all bad. For a certain class of worker that has long occupied a prominent place in this city — young, creative, lacking local roots, perhaps more inclined to self-absorption than not — the recession has been a boon.
To encounter the laid-off twenty- and thirtysomethings blogging about unemployed life or roaming this city's bars, museums, and parks on weekday afternoons is to witness a weirdly upbeat portrait emerge. This is no Lost Generation, but a generation that, through loss of work, claims to be finding itself — and having fun along the way. Some take to the great outdoors or pick up midweek volunteer shifts; others travel to exotic countries and spend long days relaxing among other recession casualties at the city's coffee shops. Many say that abruptly running off the iron rails of office life has forced them to reconsider the kind of career they want in the first place.
"The people I know, nobody's strapped for cash," says Grace, a laid-off tech company worker who splits her time between San Francisco and Sunnyvale and founded the blog Stuff Unemployed People Like. (Among the entries: "Buying Game Consoles with Unemployment Checks," "Buying Perrier with Food Stamps," and "Shunning Public Transportation Because 'It's for Poor People.'" In anticipation of future job interviews, she declined to disclose her last name.) "We didn't live above our means. We didn't get involved in the real-estate market. For me, it sucks not to have income, but I'm definitely laid-back enough about it that I can make unemployment work."
Neil Howe, an expert on generational psychology and coauthor of Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069, says the sunny outlook of laid-off young workers is a symptom of the endemic hopefulness witnessed in the so-called Millennial generation of young professionals whose formative years coincided with the longest economic expansion in American history.
"There's none of that scared quality — 'I have to take second or third best choice,'" he says. "This is not the time to go out and prepare food [for a living]. You wouldn't even think of that. Oh, and by the way, from time to time I'll get my coffee at Starbucks. What the hell."
This "almost mechanical optimism," as Howe calls it, may be tempered in significant ways by the psychology of stragglers from the preceding generation, known as Gen X — workers now entering their late 30s and early 40s — who had little faith in sanctioned career paths and developed a high tolerance for job turnover and freelance work. "I wouldn't be surprised if some of the energy here and some of the puckish delight in having fun when the chips are down isn't the influence of late-wave X-ers," he says. "A little bit of the Millennial confidence, and a little bit of the X-er defying-the-odds-and-having-fun type of thing."
Like many social trends, the concept of funemployment is also a product, in part, of government policy. As a result of provisions in the Obama administration's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the maximum timeframe for receiving unemployment insurance has been increased to 79 weeks, according to Patrick Joyce, spokesman for the California EDD. Previously unaffordable post-layoff health-insurance premiums have been partly subsidized through expansion of the COBRA program.
While the maximum weekly benefit of $475 (raised under Obama from the previous $450) is relatively low, from the perspective of a young, healthy worker without kids or a mortgage, this may be one of the most propitious times to be receiving unemployment-insurance payments in the nation's history. What, exactly, are the young and funemployed doing to make the most of it?
To start — and it is just a start — one might attend a VIP cocktail hour to honor renowned mid-20th-century Jewish lounge pianist Irving Fields, creator of such groundbreaking works of musical fusion as the 1959 record Bagels and Bongos. This was Mansinne's evening activity of choice on April 30, when she attended an appetizers-and-drinks prelude to a performance by the 93-year-old Fields at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, on Mission between Third and Fourth streets. ("I'm glad to be here in San Francisco," he said as he addressed the crowd. "At my age, I'm glad to be anywhere.") Jonathan Hershaff, a broad-shouldered 27-year-old with dark curly hair who was leaving his job as a researcher at Wells Fargo to pursue a Ph.D. in economics, spoke to Mansinne and a few acquaintances. He'Brew beer in hand, he talked about his days as a practitioner of Krav Maga, the no-holds-barred martial art used by the Israel Defense Forces that has gained great popularity in the U.S. (The technique now counts Jennifer Lopez among its high-profile adherents.)
"Do you still do it?" The question came from Rachel Thompson, a 24-year-old who works in marketing for Hahn Family Wines.
Hershaff shook his head. "I got into salsa dancing." He turned to Mansinne. "How are you existing? Do you get any money from blogging?"
Late in December, as she struggled to cope with life sans steady job, Mansinne had decided to begin chronicling the lifestyle and mindset of an unemployed twentysomething through her blog, Funemployment. (Its motto: "Because not everyone is lucky enough to work at a job they can't stand.") Her first entry was an apt summary of the whistling-in-the-dark quality that defines this online literary subgenre, which has seen an explosion of contributions from the Bay Area over the past six months. On Monday, Dec. 29, she explained the blog's title in her inaugural post:
"We begin with the more commonly used 'Unemployment,'" she wrote, which "conjures up images (in this gal's head, at least) of sad-looking men in fedoras and long coats waiting for their bread ration in the freezing cold. ... When put in the context, 'What does Louise do?' 'She's unemployed.' The sympathy and sadness dripping from the responder's voice is palpable. ... It's just gicky [sic] sounding for a 25-year-old."
And, no, she didn't make any money from it.
"I have, like, 15 regular readers," Mansinne said, responding to Hershaff's query. But things were looking up. "I looked up 'funemployment' on Google the other day, and I'm the second hit."
Hershaff and Thompson nodded. Like Mansinne, they were at this event to hobnob with a local donor to the nonprofit Taglit-Birthright Israel, which sends anyone of demonstrably Jewish descent on a bus tour of the Holy Land. Earlier this year, Mansinne, who has a Jewish mother and Catholic father, went on the 10-day trip, which she followed with a one-week jaunt through Turkey. The latter section of the voyage would have been impossible if she still had a job to return to.
Taking in the room over a glass of white wine, Mansinne, wearing dark-framed glasses and a gray sweater over a white collared shirt, said she was struck by an odd feeling of nostalgia. "It's funny, to be at this event, because this is exactly the type of event that I used to throw," she said. "For two years, this was all I did, was go to events like this, and I was in charge. Now I'm not in charge."
The driven young men and women now suffering waves of job losses were the same ones portrayed in their collegiate proto-state in David Brooks' landmark 2001 article in The Atlantic, "The Organization Kid." Brooks described the meticulous overachievement of Millennials, which stood in contrast to their Boomer parents' hostility toward authority and the paths to success sanctioned by authority. To judge from what the newly jobless are saying, the Organization Kid seems to have chilled out a bit.
Peter Shanley, a 27-year-old Yale graduate, was mowed down in a round of layoffs at Yahoo the week before Christmas. Armed with about $40,000 in severance pay and $475 per week in unemployment insurance checks, he has set aside plenty of time for what most would consider leisurely pastimes. Since his layoff, he has taken an extended skiing vacation in Idaho. He's done five of the top seven hikes in Marin County. Right now he's training for the Death Ride, a 129-mile bicycle trek through the Sierras in July. (The day after his layoff, Shanley says, he defied the frowning gods of the recession and purchased a discounted $3,000 road bike.)
At about 4 p.m. on a recent Thursday, Shanley chatted in the back lot of Zeitgeist, a one-time biker bar, now evolved into a beloved hipster hangout, at Valencia and Duboce. Sporting dark sunglasses, a blue T-shirt bearing the insignia of the Italian national soccer team, and a moustache thick as a Fuller brush, he sipped a pint of beer and explained that his job search is, of course, active. But it's not what you'd call desperate.
"I'm not apathetic about the fact that I have no income right now other than government checks," he said. It was a sunny, windblown afternoon; the air smelled of boozy malt, burning weed, and cigarette smoke. "But in this market, there's only so much you can do."
Lest joblessness get too comfortable, Shanley still hits the gym early in the morning and takes time to volunteer. He has regularly devoted man-hours to the Berkeley-based service group Causes.com, and is considering a several-month stint as a volunteer with a microloan organization in Africa next fall. He sends e-mails to prospective employers and tries to set up interviews. He's thinking about going back to school for a Ph.D. in behavioral economics. Notably, he said he's been spared the psychological blow many associate with loss of work. For him, unemployment has confirmed the need to relegate jobs to their proper place in his perspective on a life well lived. "I don't really define myself by work," he said. "I work to support a lifestyle that's very full and rich and fulfilling."
Funemployment isn't just about fun. Many take the time to volunteer, self-educate, pick up odd jobs, or consider career shifts they had placed indefinitely on the back burner. As Mansinne mulls her next move, she is also babysitting, job-shadowing at Petaluma High School, and putting together a North Bay wine-tasting event for Birthright Israel.
"When I talk to people, it's not about unemployment," says Katie Edmonds, 29, who was laid off from a videogame art studio in April. "It's about, 'What are you doing with your time now?' A lot of people are like me. They just had so much waiting in the wings that they pile their plates really high with things to do."
Unemployment, says Tania Khadder, a San Francisco resident and co-founder of the blog Unemploymentality, "forced me to reevaluate what I was doing and what I wanted." Edmonds agrees that a serendipitous loss of work was just what she and some of her friends needed as they drifted into their late twenties with vaguely realized ambitions. The unremitting schedule of the gainfully employed — work, after-work drinks, television, sleep, more work — doesn't leave a lot of time for purposeful examination of the future. Edmonds, who did a stopover at fashion-design school before graduating with a degree in political science from UC Berkeley, is now making plans to return to grad school to study public policy. Being unemployed, she says, "took my attention, which was spread over a lot of different things, and gave it focus. In a way, it derailed my financial plan. But it accelerated my professional plan."
Edmonds is currently working on a video-editing project for a Chinese human-rights group and grant-writing for a documentary on urban gardening, as well as volunteering with Larkin Street Youth Services, where she helps hand out free condoms and clean socks to the street kids who swarm the Upper Haight and Hippie Hill. Turns out that some of the habits of the Organization Kid die hard. "I'm not going to give up on something just because I don't have time for it," she says. "Especially when I don't have a job."
Federally subsidized odysseys of self-discovery. Wine-tasting. Hiking. Bagels. Bongos. If this is the life of the jobless, why stare at your cubicle walls another second? Because funemployment, like high school summer vacation, is a temporally limited joy. No sooner have its elusive promises started to come within reach than they disappear. September's here, kids, and the fun is over.
For Anthony Ferraro, September has arrived. Until this fall, he had what he considered his dream job, working as a video producer at Current TV, the modish, San Francisco–based television station co-founded by Al Gore. In November, he was let go in a round of layoffs.
For Ferraro, who moved to San Francisco from New York several years ago, this wasn't completely unfamiliar territory. He'd lost jobs before. When he got the ax at Current, he says, he made a point of driving straight home and cleaning his Pacific Heights pad with the fervor of a maid in a hotel room. Then he went out drinking. When he awoke the next day, his newly immaculate surroundings helped brighten his mood.
That was six months ago. Fast-forward to a sunny May afternoon at the Peet's Coffee & Tea at Sacramento and Fillmore, where the sturdy 42-year-old with tinted glasses and a black mesh baseball cap discussed his work prospects. There are none. At least not here. Much to his displeasure, he is preparing to give up his apartment and leave San Francisco. He says he will move to L.A., where he hopes to find a cheaper apartment and more freelance work.
"It's done," he said. "It's been six months. In six months I've only gotten three weeks of freelance work. The jobs that are like, 'You do this for a day, make a little extra money' — even those are gone, because there are so many people." A former actor, Ferraro said the glut of overeducated types in the local job market reminds him of the beginnings of the trend that saw television actors auditioning for Broadway productions, bumping off-Broadway aspirants out of the running. "I had a friendly taxi driver the other day," he said. "I was quizzing him. Like, 'How do you get into this?'"
Ferraro had hoped that San Francisco, and his gig at Current, would mark the beginning of a new and more secure phase in his life. After years of scraping together freelance work in film and acting, he had at last found a company he wanted to stay with, and had cash to take on some of the trappings of a conventionally stable adulthood: the PT Cruiser, the one-bedroom apartment. "I got myself into a new situation," he said. "I wasn't so afraid to get HBO2. The iPhone? It's $50 more, but fuck it, I've got to have the iPhone." He paused. "And then when I got laid off I couldn't cover my overhead."
For some, particularly in industries subject to long-term destabilizing factors that pre-date the current downturn — such as old and new media — the Bay Area's unemployment epidemic has dispelled any last, cherished illusions of having a steady job in the first place.
John Henion, a 32-year-old Oakland resident and friend of Ferraro's, was also laid off from Current TV in November. He has health-insurance coverage through his long-time girlfriend, and little trouble picking up freelance work in video production and editing. Unemploymentality, the blog he started with Khadder, another laid-off Current employee, was getting more readers, as well as some attention from the press. (Khadder, in an interesting twist, has scored a new job with a company impressed by her blog entries.) Henion has decided to stop stressing about returning to an office.
"My philosophy is that I can spend all day writing cover letters or writing résumés, or I can just build a brand," he says. He adds, ruefully, "I used to think there was job security in media." As workplace casualties pile higher, one has to wonder just how many industries the sentiment will eventually extend to.
Alexis Mansinne is not waiting around to find out. She has decided to pursue a career path in the classically stable mold — returning to school for a master's degree and becoming a guidance counselor in a public high school. No more will she market glossy magazines or jetset among large cities. She's betting on the idea that sitting face to face with awkward kids will bring more lasting satisfaction than cubicle culture.
"It was cool to say what I was doing," she muses late on a recent Monday morning, sitting at the same kitchen table in her Sunset apartment where she received the news of her layoff. "So much of my identity for so long has been wrapped up in the brand on my business card. And now I don't have business cards. So what does that make me?"
There's no easy answer to that question. One might say — as Mansinne has — that having no business cards simply makes her funemployed, another exiled young office bee enjoying a well-deserved vacation on a downsized income. But that's not really true. "There's a lot I don't like about not having a job," she says. "I call it funemployment and I talk it up. But it's tough. My income now is half of what it was." More psychologically significant than the income loss, she says, is the morbid condition of "feeling ineffectual in the world."
She laments that not having enough to do gives her the blues. "There's only so much I can do in a day working on the wine tour, and then there's no more work to do," she says. "It gets kind of depressing."
On this Monday, Mansinne is getting ready to help her younger brother move into a new apartment. Then she's headed to Los Angeles — not, like Ferraro, to look for work in a bigger job market, but to look after her grandmother, who is coming home from the hospital after treatment related to a broken femur. When she returns, there will be graduate counseling programs to check out, the GRE to study for, and, eventually, some form of work to find. Since Mansinne plans to apply to grad school this fall, she won't be able to start working toward her degree until the fall of 2010, and will need a source of cash once her unemployment checks run out.
Even under COBRA, Mansinne is paying close to $400 per month in health-insurance premiums. She wants a new health plan. This consideration is driving her back to a company that employed her during her college years: Starbucks.
From Devil-Wears-Prada magazine marketer to Starbucks peon to high-school guidance counselor, with some bagels, bongos, and blogging along the way. Behold the path of the funemployed — equal parts relaxation, reflection, optimism, and disappointment. "It's totally bizarre to me to think I'm going to go back to Starbucks," she says. "I was really on a career path. And then it all came to a crashing halt." She pauses. "I think I like it better this way."