Since the last Friday in January, when my supervisor asked me to “pop down” into his office, I have identified with characters in the movie, “Up in the Air,” but unfortunately not the George Clooney character. For I am up in the air in the figurative sense, having been released from a full-time job after nine years. Frankly, to be up in the air literally, in between short stints in clients’ offices, would be a pleasure — especially all that cooling of the heels in airport executive clubs. Laying people off en masse might not be the most soul-satisfying kind of contract work, but being laid off yourself is probably worse.
It’s easier for me since I have an infant son and an underwater mortgage. Did I say easier? I must have gotten confused again. You know how the unemployment figures underestimate the true number because they don’t include the “under-employed,” or those who have stopped looking? Well, it’s a pretty sure thing that I won’t be in the second group. Anyway, what I meant to say was that I’m finding the experience quite motivating. In fact, if I cut these thoughts off mid-sentence, it will be because a new job posting has appeared on my smart phone.
I imagine that I sound very devil-may-care to all of you employed readers, but you must realize that I’ve just boarded my flight. I don’t know if I’m on a shuttle from New York to Boston or heading out on a long haul, over the ice cap.
I’ll take a break from the airplane metaphor now. It doesn’t work here in an important sense, anyway. We without jobs still have some control over our destiny. However tough the current market, the person who applies for 50 positions a week will probably do better than the guy who applies for five or six. That’s why I’m going to stop figuring how long my family can live on a tuna fish diet, and update my resume very soon.
Meanwhile, I am choosing to look on the bright side, even seeing this setback as a catalyst for dramatic, positive change: Walter’s Excellent Unemployment Adventure. “In a world where good jobs were disappearing every month, Walter kept his head down in the hard-hit magazine publishing industry. Then one Friday, his company turned the page…” Our hero would suffer some tough days, of course, mulling questions like, can I continue to feed my child? And will there be money for heat at the end of the year? But he’ll be better for it in the end.
Honesty compels me to admit that I have lost a little sleep in recent days. Regular headlines in the New York Times about the plight of the unemployed can lead to the urge to crawl up into the fetal position and take a nap. Mostly, I resist the temptation. It’s the defensive crouch of the magazine business that has led to my predicament, after all.
Five years ago, my employer vacated its offices in New York for more economical digs in New Jersey. In the years since, cost pressures have only mounted, as magazine publishers have reeled from the combined effects of the Great Recession and the accelerating migration of readers to the web. My contributions in marketing communications had become less valuable to a business battening down the hatches in a still-strengthening storm. I knew this and believed that I shouldn’t be one of the people trying to stay put. But I didn’t look for other work. Shame on me. I liked my employer, my co-workers, the company softball games, and the sushi in the food court nearby. While I won’t be sending any thank-you notes, my former company did for me what I really should have done for myself.
This kind of thinking can lead some people (not necessarily me) to turn a layoff into a point of pride. It’s not that my employer took the opportunity to separate wheat from chaff. It’s that they judged me to be among the best able to land on our feet. I have broadly applicable skills. I can find employment in other fields. I took one for the team! Being up in the air can make you a little giddy.
Helping to keep me grounded is my wife, an architectural designer and preternatural optimist. She sees a world of opportunities and is convinced that I’ll be happier for the change. She even likes tuna fish. How great is that? Of course, my wife may be experiencing a little rose-colored-glasses effect. She has been so busy designing a new development in New York that she was shocked to hear the out-of-work stories of highly qualified designers who responded to her help-wanted ad.
A native of China, she also may be unduly influenced by news from home — where it seems not even the greatest of recessions can stop China’s rise for long. And maybe there is a lesson from Asia for me. If China won’t let communism get in the way of an extraordinary run of capitalism, then I shouldn’t worry about the effects of the wider economy on my own prospects.
I don’t know how my personalized enactment of George Clooney’s movie will unspool, but I hope it has a short engagement and a happy ending. And I assure you that, however successful it may be, I will seek to avoid a sequel.
Verfenstein was — until recently — director of corporate communications for a Princeton-based company in the magazine publishing industry.