Free Essay

Commute to Nowhere

In: Social Issues

Submitted By manishmry
Words 8257
Pages 34
Commute to Nowhere
By Jonathan Mahler Published: April 13, 2003

In the forest of khaki, heather gray and chambray that is the Gap's store on Fifth Avenue and 54th Street, the 6-foot-4-inch Jeff Einstein is a walking, talking redwood. The instant a potential customer breaches the invisible border of his department, he approaches to offer assistance. ''Too bad I'm not selling cars,'' he jokes with one pear-shaped man after setting him up with a pair of khakis -- 40-inch waist, cuffs, pleats -- in less than 15 seconds. There's something self-conscious about Jeff's act, as if he's trying to prove to himself that he's comfortable with his job. Or maybe it's that he's overcompensating for having been a bit slow to tell me about it a few weeks earlier. (''I'm working in retail now,'' he had said cryptically.) Either explanation makes sense. Jeff is not your typical Gap salesman. When his shift ends, we relocate to a nearby bar, and Jeff tells me the story of landing the job. The Gap was gearing up for the Christmas onslaught near the end of last year, and he was summoned for a group interview. ''There were about 20 people in the room,'' Jeff recalls, ''and each one of us had to introduce ourselves and talk about our most recent position. There was a cashier from McDonald's, a woman who had worked at Baby Gap, a ticket collector from Loews, a gift wrapper from Barnes & Noble. Then it came to me. I said I used to be an executive vice president and a director of interactive marketing for Rapp Digital, a digital media company with 300 employees and a P. and L. of $40 million.'' Jeff, who is 50, lost his job at Rapp Digital almost two years ago, making him one of 21,000 computer-industry professionals in New York City to have been let go since the end of 2000. In percentage terms the numbers are even starker. Between December 2000 and January 2003, the industry slashed 41 percent of its positions. While the recession of the early 90's took a heavy toll on white-collar workers, this one seems to have institutionalized the phenomenon. Advanced degrees, no matter how prestigious, offer little protection. The economy is grim nationwide, but the picture in New York City is especially bleak. Since the end of 2000, the media-and-communications sector has cut 15 percent of its jobs, telecommunications 27 percent, advertising 25 percent. Eighteen percent of jobs on Wall Street have been slashed, and firms continue to lay people off. Given the delirium with which most high-tech jobs were first created, there's no reason to believe that many of them -- and the jobs in other sectors that they generated -- will come back anytime soon. By the numbers, women have been hit as hard as men, but white-collar men tend to experience unemployment differently, organizational psychologists say. For most women, survival trumps ego; they simply adapt and find some job. For men, grappling with joblessness inevitably entails surrendering an idea of who they are -- or who others thought they were.

A couple of weeks after we met at the Gap, Jeff Einstein is in the kitchen making chicken cacciatore as his wife, Mara, and I chat in the living room of their $2,200-a-month two-bedroom apartment in Forest Hills, Queens. She's a sturdy-looking, attractive woman, with chin-length curly blond hair and high, wide cheekbones. When she first met Jeff in 1997, Mara tells me, he was living in the East Village and seamlessly moving from one job to the next. Companies would hire him to dream up and put in effect initiatives that would entice investors -- and then cut him and his high salary loose to appease those investors. There was always another high-paying position waiting. Whenever he switched jobs, a press release would go out; inevitably, his name would be prefaced by three words: ''interactive industry pioneer.'' Jeff discovered his passion for computers relatively late in life; until then, he was always something of an underachiever. He grew up near San Francisco in the 1960's and never graduated from college, opting to move to Israel instead. After several years there, he returned to the United States and knocked around from job to job for a while. In 1983, at the age of 31, he found himself working at an ad agency in New York. One day, out of boredom mostly, Jeff picked up a computer manual and started reading. He found it incomprehensible. A few weeks later, he pitched a series of books to Harcourt that would be called Einstein's Computer Guides -- one of the first how-to books for personal computers. The publisher had only one question for him: Is your name really Einstein? He got the deal and flew out to California to pick up a free demo from Apple. While he was there, he went skiing in Lake Tahoe with a few of Apple's founders. For the next 15 years, Jeff had the rare experience of being exactly the right person for the right time. After his computer guides were published, he was hired to install a PC network in American Airlines' club lounges that would offer financial information and e-commerce (though the term did not yet exist) to business travelers. He quickly realized that the network's real value was as an advertising vehicle and founded, with Jay Sandom, what industry experts consider the first interactive ad agency, Einstein & Sandom Inc. Jeff was already an Internet crusader when the recession hit in the early 90's. He was convinced that as soon as the rain stopped and the sun broke through the clouds, a new industry would flower. He was, of course, correct. And so by the time Jeff met Mara, in 1997, he was a wizened rock star, the Mick Jagger of digital media. Mara remembers going with him to an ''industry event'' -- those bygone giddy get-togethers of Internet evangelists -- and bumping into an old friend. Her friend asked what Mara was doing there. ''When I told him I was with Jeff Einstein,'' Mara recalls, ''he couldn't believe it.'' They were married in 1998. Mara had an M.B.A. and was working in marketing at NBC. She also enrolled in a Ph.D. program in media studies at New York University and later quit her job to write her dissertation. Soon after, when she became pregnant, Jeff figured it was time to settle

down. The job at Rapp Digital seemed as secure as they come; his old partner and best friend, Jay Sandom, was president, and Jeff was on the company's operating board. ''I thought I was selling out when I joined Rapp Digital,'' he says. ''We didn't even have any dot-com clients. Our clients were companies like Enron.'' Not long after Jeff started, Rapp Digital's parent company, Omnicom, instituted a policy requiring every branch to show a 20 percent profit, which was out of the realm of possibility for his New York office. Jeff survived the first round of cuts, but not the second. He was laid off in May 2001. Jeff figured an offer would arrive shortly after his name started circulating, maybe not as quickly as they had in the past, but he had three months of severance -- plenty, he thought, to get him to his next position. The three months went by, then four, then five, then six. His name was out there, but no offers were forthcoming. Jeff was periodically checking job boards like, but he rarely saw postings that looked senior enough. Mostly he was hanging around the house like a moody teenager, checking his e-mail, surfing the Internet, playing the guitar. Mara wanted to be understanding. ''I promised myself I wasn't going to give him any ultimatums,'' she says. Instead, she took on more work. She secured a publisher for her dissertation and took a tenure-track position at Queens College. She also piled on the part-time teaching and consulting jobs, pushing her income up to $80,000 a year. We've finished dinner now, and Jeff has gone into the other room to play with their 3-year-old daughter, Cayla, leaving Mara and me alone at the table. As the months passed, she tells me, her patience started to wear thin. In May 2002, her father died of leukemia. That month also marked the anniversary of Jeff's unemployment. ''Once it hits a year,'' she says, ''there's no reason to believe it's going to be any better this time next year.'' By that point, things at home were strained. ''A lot of people were telling me that if their husband wasn't working for this long they'd throw him out of the house,'' Mara says. ''I was starting to think, Am I an idiot for putting up with this?'' Jeff became depressed and withdrew. Mara, resentful that she couldn't talk about her job without risking making Jeff feel worse, pulled back, too. They spoke only rarely, Jeff says, and stopped having sex altogether. By the summer, she was just about out of sympathy. ''He was like a retired person,'' Mara says. ''I couldn't stand it.'' She wanted him to do something, anything. One day, over a cheese omelet and Belgian waffles at the diner around the corner from their apartment, she begged him to at least do some volunteer work, whatever it took to get out of the house. But he never did. Jeff is back at the table now, but Mara seems to have scarcely noticed. She continues to speak freely about his unemployment and its toll on their relationship. Jeff occasionally nods in agreement. Once toxic, the subject now couldn't feel more benign.

In September, Mara says, Jeff agreed to go into therapy. They also started couples' counseling. Two months later, she did what she had vowed never to do: ''I told him that come Feb. 1, if you're not contributing to the rent, you have to move out.'' Now, working at the Gap at $10 an hour, it takes Jeff two and a half weeks to earn what he used to make in a day at Rapp Digital, where his annual salary was $300,000 (including bonuses but excluding stock options). But he and Mara are still together, and after ''the year-and-a-half-long process of dehumanization,'' as Jeff calls it, he's happy to have any job. ''It keeps me out of my head,'' he says, ''which is a bad neighborhood to be in right now.'' When the technology industry blossomed in the late 90's, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs that seemed to promise boundless prosperity, you didn't have to be a daydreamer to be intoxicated by the scent. In 1999, Lou Casagrande, a graduate of Brown University with a Ph.D. in chemistry from Stanford and an M.B.A. from Long Island University, quit his job as a scientist at Northrop Grumman to take a position as an information-technology consultant in Warren, N.J. Lou and his wife, Janet, found a four-bedroom Colonial in nearby Summit with a big backyard that would allow them to expand and still have room in back for their three kids. The mortgage was a stretch. At his salary of $100,000 a year, the roughly $2,700 monthly payment represented 45 percent of his take-home pay. But, as Lou says, ''at that time, I was imagining an ever-increasing salary, ever-increasing stock options and all those wonderful things.'' It's a sunny afternoon, and I'm sitting with Lou and Janet in the small living room of their whiteshingled house on a quiet street talking about how they're managing. Lou was laid off in June 2001. At the time, he figured he'd be out three to six months tops. Twenty-two months later, he's still looking. When G.D.P. growth resumed in the fourth quarter of 2001, Lou, like many economists, figured the worst was over. More than a year later, the unemployment picture for all workers remains bleak. Nationwide, more jobs were lost last February than in any single month since November 2001. We are in the worst hiring slump in 20 years. Lou, at 43 a fit 5-foot-9 with a prominent nose and wiry dark hair that's quickly disappearing from the top of his head, sits on a couch next to me. Janet, who has long, straight red hair and hazel eyes, is in a chair across from us. She has made rugelach and coffee. Every 20 minutes or so she gets up to quiet their three kids, who are in an adjacent playroom littered with coloring books and Pokémon cards. Whenever she returns, she flashes Lou a smile. Janet and Lou met through a ski club in 1989; Janet got a little drunk at lunch on a weekend trip to Vermont, and Lou, who was fresh out of Stanford, took care of her on the mountain. ''I liked that Lou was active and that he wasn't judgmental at all,'' Janet says. A year later they were married and living in an apartment in Middle Village, Queens. They saved up and bought a house on Long Island but were soon dreaming of moving to northern New Jersey, where most of their friends from Queens had ended up.

Now, the absence of tension between them is striking, especially given the dire state of the family finances. The Casagrandes ran through their long-term savings several months ago and are now well into the college funds -- accounts that Janet's father started for each child after birth. ''That should last about another two to three months,'' Lou says. If he still hasn't landed a job by then, he and Janet will be forced to raid their 401(k). The Summit house is their biggest source of both anxiety and comfort. They have considered downgrading to something smaller or perhaps even selling and renting. But their house is already pretty modest by Summit standards, and a rental big enough for the five of them isn't likely to cost much less than their mortgage. ''With everything that the kids are already dealing with,'' Lou says, ''we really don't want to move out of Summit.'' The whole conversation is surprisingly matter-of-fact. Lou's job loss, it seems, has merely created a series of practical challenges. ''One of the first things we did,'' Janet says, ''is cut off the kids' allowances'' -- a savings of $6 a week. The Casagrandes also registered all three children for a state-subsidized school lunch program. When Lou's unemployment benefits, which came to $890 every two weeks, expired last summer -- they had already been extended twice, once by the federal government and once by the state of New Jersey -- he put up fliers around town advertising his software-installation services. He has had six clients for a total of about 20 hours, less than $1,000. Last fall, Lou started substitute teaching. The pay is $90 a day, but work is sporadic, particularly because Lou is limited to the Summit schools by the fact that the Casagrandes are down to one car, a 1995 Subaru. Their second car would not have passed its 2001 inspection without repair work they couldn't afford, so they gave it away and took the tax deduction instead. Lou has also been teaching a spinning class at the local Y.M.C.A. for several months now. At $12 an hour, the money isn't great, but as a part-time employee of the Y, he only pays $100 a year for a family membership. There's another hidden benefit, too. ''Believe it or not,'' he says, ''being in front of the group keeps up my confidence in my ability to make the kinds of corporate presentations I've made in the past and that I anticipate making again in the future.'' A light snow is falling on the Wednesday evening when I go to pick up Lou's wife, Janet, from the Starbucks in a strip mall in Florham Park, N.J. In addition to teaching at a Montessori preschool, Janet now makes lattes. She's one of four women at her Starbucks alone who are working there because their husbands have been laid off. The appeal is obvious: though the pay is just $8 an hour, she needs to log only 20 hours a week to qualify for the company's health-care plan. The Casagrandes, a family of five, pay just $220 a month; Lou's Cobra, which would have expired by now anyway, was costing them close to $800. Janet has become adept at spotting nametags of companies that might make an appropriate employer for her husband. A few minutes after I arrive, she points out a small table of professionals. ''They come in every day at 5,'' she tells me as she looks around for a particularly

successful-looking middle-aged businessman who recently joined the group. ''I haven't had the right moment yet to approach him about Lou,'' she says, ''but I will.'' Matthew, their middle son, just turned 8, and Janet tells me that he wanted a party, even if it had to be small. Janet's parents sent enough money for him to invite eight friends. Janet baked cupcakes with frosting in the shape of cobwebs and found a few Spider-Man-themed games on the Internet that they could play with string and paper plates. They had enough cash left over from the money Lou's parents gave them for the children's Christmas presents to buy Matthew a $20 skateboard. Janet has been anything but shy about asking for help. She persuaded the Y to waive the extra fee for the kids' weekly karate class, and her most recent coup was getting the local Girl Scouts chapter to excuse Leah, who is 10, from paying $185 to go on a camping trip to the Poconos. On occasion, help arrives unsolicited. This past Christmas, Janet's Montessori school made a donation to the Casagrande family rather than to a charity, the school's usual custom. And for a period of about six months, Lou and Janet were receiving $20 in cash in the mail every so often in an envelope without a return address. ''I think it was one of the college girls who used to work at Starbucks with me,'' Janet says, ''but she's gone now, and I was never able to be sure.'' A couple of weeks ago, Janet tells me later as we pull into the parking lot of the Y to meet Lou, Matthew asked her to cut his hair. ''Don't you want to go the barber?'' Janet asked. ''But we can save money if you do it,'' Matthew answered. Tom Pyle has the kind of background that's supposed to prevent this sort of thing from happening. Hotchkiss, Princeton, Harvard Business School -- he was, as he puts it, ''programmed to be a world-beater.'' A trim, compact man of 50 with a thin wisp of hair near the front of his otherwise smooth head, Tom is very much a creature of the old economy. Even without an office, he wears Brooks Brothers and Burberrys and carries a suitably distressed leather briefcase wherever he goes. He speaks thoughtfully and deliberately and often clasps his hands together, interlacing his fingers, when he's making a point. During the late 90's, Tom took the 5:57 a.m. from Princeton Junction to Penn Station and went to work as a financial director at a Swedish bank, where he earned about $200,000 a year. He paid off the mortgage on his four-bedroom ranch house in Princeton, socked away enough money to send both of his children to the private college of their choosing, gave his wife whatever money she needed to run the household and invested the rest in the stock market. If anyone had safeguarded himself against the vagaries of the future, it was Tom Pyle. At the end of 2001, Tom took a position as the director of development at the United States Rowing Association. The $100,000 (including incentives) salary was low, but Tom considered it

a long-term investment. Banking was a young man's game; he could grow old in the nonprofit sector. Unlike most out-of-work professionals, who watched anxiously as their employers' flow of business slowed to a trickle, Tom never saw it coming. Six months after he started -- and three nights after his boss had taken him out to dinner to tell him how well everything was going -- a major sponsor abruptly withdrew its financing. For the first time in his life, Tom was terminated. ''I was stunned,'' he tells me one evening last month. We're sitting at the Pyles' kitchen table in Princeton as Tom's wife, Molly, dishes out chicken curry, rice and salad, all of which was prepared and ready to serve when I arrived. Molly is Chinese but grew up in London. When she entered her 20's, her father sent her back home to Singapore in the hope that she'd marry a Chinese man. Instead, she married Tom, who was working in Asia at the time. She has been a stay-at-home mom -- in her words, ''a spoiled banker's wife'' -- ever since. After we begin eating, the Pyles' 17-year-old son, Adam, a stringy senior at Princeton High with dark eyes and a thick shock of black hair, silently stalks in. As he shovels down a plate full of curry, his father explains that I'm writing an article about executives in transition. Adam refills, eats a second plate clean and then excuses himself without uttering a word. The scene is reassuringly timeless. The weeknight dinner in the snow-encrusted suburbs, complete with the brooding teenager, the well-organized mother and the father in a starched button-down. The difference tonight, and every night for nearly a year, is that the father hasn't just returned home from a hard day at work. That's likely to be the case for the foreseeable future. As James Parrott, the chief economist for the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonprofit economic-policy group, says, ''There's no rebound in sight, and there aren't even the glimmers of developments that would lead you to predict a rebound.'' That the current situation in Iraq has been accompanied by fears of a terrorist attack on New York and other cities has only further darkened the employment horizon. ''I love traveling, and I don't do that anymore,'' Molly tells me, ''and for groceries, I go to Sam's Club instead of the local market, which is very expensive.'' She hasn't bought any new clothing in months, or at least nothing that she didn't guiltily return the next day. ''I'm thinking about working,'' she says. ''I never thought I'd work in America.'' This last suggestion clearly irks Tom. ''She says that because she feels that things are worse than they really are,'' he says. With the house paid off and the college tuitions protected, the Pyles are by no means in financial distress. Still, as Tom puts it a few minutes later: ''Economic reality is not the arbiter of domestic tranquillity.'' It soon becomes clear that one of the biggest obstacles to domestic tranquillity is proximity. ''It's terrible,'' Molly says. ''My husband is always in the house.''

Seemingly a bit surprised by his wife's bluntness, Tom tries to soften the edge. ''The traditional rhythm is that it's her abode,'' he says. Tom hasn't adjusted to being around the house so much himself. ''I'm not used to being on demand to solve family problems,'' he says. He's also not used to having his wife look over his shoulder as he does his job -- which, in this case, is looking for a job, a task Tom approaches with considerable gusto, obsessively checking job postings, going on informational interviews, making networking phone calls. To Molly, those phone calls can sound suspiciously like personal calls, which she doesn't hesitate to tell him. She also remains unconvinced that his various networking meetings -- he goes to an average of two a week -- are helping the cause much, and when she learned how much Tom was paying a career counselor, she urged him to stop. He reluctantly conceded, although he was only partway through the program. ''Spouses,'' Tom tells me later with an affectionate halfgrin, ''should not run job campaigns. They're not good advisers.'' While there's no good time to lose your job, Tom's timing was especially bad: it happened the same month that their investment manager incorrectly predicted that the market had bottomed out. Molly, who'd never had any reason to examine the portfolio in the past, learned about this unfortunate event when she went to draw some money from the account for basic household items -- things that Tom's regular paychecks had always covered. She didn't sleep for weeks afterward. ''We lost a lot of money in the stock market,'' Molly says. ''A lot.'' ''It's a matter of perception,'' says Tom. ''Everybody took a big hit.'' ''Excuse me,'' says Molly, getting up to serve us seconds, ''but I do know how much money we lost.'' It's a conversation that has no doubt played itself out at countless dinner tables across the country over the past two years. Tom's right; except for a very lucky few, everyone has taken a big hit. Still, he's in an impossible position. From his conciliatory tone it's clear that he doesn't want to continue the argument. At the same time, he knows that if he can bring her around to his way of thinking, she might actually feel less anxious. Later, when Tom and I are alone, he tries to put the discussion into context. He doesn't resent Molly for getting so worked up; on the contrary, he feels guilty. ''She wants stability and certainty, which every woman deserves,'' he says. ''She held up her end of the deal, taking care of the house and kids, and she deserves a good life from here on out.'' Only twice in two years has Lou Casagrande felt he was even close to getting a job. Once, a little less than a year ago, he was confident enough to take his wife and kids out to a Chinese restaurant for chicken and cashews to celebrate, their first family dinner out since he'd been laid off. Then the prospective employer, which does scientific product development for the

semiconductor industry, fell on hard times. Not only did the offer fail to materialize; Lou never heard from the company again. When Lou first lost his job, his plan was to get into investment banking, probably as an analyst, and he had a few friends from Brown helping him out. Then came Sept. 11. With the prospects on Wall Street looking dimmer than ever, Lou decided to refocus his search on pharmaceutical companies. But the fact that his Ph.D. was in physical chemistry, not organic, proved too much of a liability even to getting his foot in the door. Now, in order to keep himself circulating, Lou, like so many of the white-collar unemployed, goes to networking meetings. Every Monday night he commutes into Manhattan for the weekly gathering of a career-counseling group called the Five O'Clock Club. On the third floor of a Helmsley hotel, he joins dozens of others, a number of whom earned six-figure salaries in their last jobs. For someone at Lou's salary level -- or previous salary level, anyway -- a package of 10 sessions costs $600. (He re-upped after running through his initial 10 and is now what's known as ''an advanced member.'') One night recently, Lou attended a monthly mixer sponsored by an online networking group called Pronounced ''rise,'' the group describes its mission as ''helping each other 'rise up.''' Basic membership is free; a ''Gold'' membership, which entitles you to discounts at mixers and an early peek at the bios of those who are planning to attend, is $9.95 a month. Lou, a basic member for the moment, pays $10 at the door of the Chateau, a dark, smoky lounge in the West Village that has rented for the evening. Once inside, he is given a thin strip of paper with thumbnail-size head shots and minibiographies of four randomly selected people whom he is supposed to seek out and meet over the course of the night, an icebreaker for those who require an excuse to approach a total stranger. Lou is shy by nature and uncomfortable with the idea of self-promotion -- ''I was always taught to let your work speak for itself,'' he says -- but he has been out of work for too long to need any pushing. He stuffs the dance card in his pocket and begins to network. He's the only man in the room wearing a tie. Over the next two hours Lou meets two self-employed Web designers who want to design his Web page, a video producer who creates two-minute CD-ROM video résumés of job applicants for $1,000 and a man named David Schmier, the head of a career-counseling firm called ''If you want to learn a language, you go to Berlitz,'' Schmier tells Lou. ''If you want to ace your LSAT's, you go to Kaplan. If you want to find a job, you come to us.'' Schmier extends his hand. Like a sprawling refugee camp, the land of the unemployed has spawned a whole new economy. Résumé-writing services will punch up your résumé; résumé-blasting services will send it on to thousands of companies. Even, the closest thing to an Elysian fields for the jobless, benefits from people looking for -- not finding -- jobs. The company's revenue model is based on their advertising space, which is considered valuable because surfers post their résumés and then click on them compulsively to see if any potential employers have checked them out.

And then there are people like Schmier, who was laid off last May as the director of interactive marketing for AOL. Now, like seemingly half the people in this room, he is trying his hand at selling services to the unemployed. ''GetHired,'' he explains, ''is not a career-counseling firm; it's a job-finding system.'' Schmier starts by laying out his networking philosophy for Lou. ''If I'm trying to get a meeting with someone, I don't tell him I'm planning to hit him up for job leads,'' he says. ''I go out of my way to tell him that I'm not going to. After the meeting,'' Schmier continues, ''I'll send him something, like an extra ticket to a trade show. A couple weeks later I'll send him something else, maybe a book that's relevant to his work -- not a new copy, but one I've spilled some coffee on, dogeared and underlined.'' It sounds a lot like dating advice from Mike Damone in ''Fast Times at Ridgemont High.'' Schmier waits a beat and then looks right at Lou. ''When I call you again, are you gonna take my call?'' he asks rhetorically. Leaning in a little closer, he proclaims: ''Be a giver, not a taker. Be a matcher, not a seller.'' Then he says: ''How do you match yourself with a company? By learning its tribal symbols and presenting yourself as a member of the tribe.'' He proceeds to illustrate this point by telling the story of how he was hired at AOL, an approach that could probably get someone arrested today. Schmier started by hanging around outside the company's headquarters eavesdropping on the smokers, then somehow scamming his way into the building in order to get a look at how the people in the department he wanted to work in dressed. Later, he set up shop at a nearby cafe, where he could chat up AOL staffers. By the time his interview rolled around, he looked and sounded as if he already worked at the company. He was, as he puts it, ''a member of the tribe.'' Lou smiles. A few minutes later, when Schmier hears that Lou might be included in a magazine article, he offers to waive the $159 fee for his all-day seminar. Lou enthusiastically accepts. In a sense, he can't afford not to. After two years of unemployment, dozens of career-counseling sessions and networking events, countless hours of research and still no job offers, who is Lou to say that David Schmier might not be the man with the key to the code? On a bitter cold night in early March, Tom Pyle and I are in his black Passat, speeding toward a FENG -- Financial Executives Networking Group -- meeting in a public library in Princeton Junction, N.J. Networking. No single word -- not ''position,'' not ''salary,'' not even ''unemployment'' -- so permeates the conversations of today's job hunters. Whether you're a former executive for Tyco Electronics in Harrisburg, Pa., or an out-of-work Madison Avenue ad exec, there's a networking group for you. In addition to FENG, there's MENG for marketers, TENG for tech guys and SENG for ''strategic'' executives (whatever that is). As the recession continues to eat away at jobs, these groups continue to multiply and expand.

Tom is the founder and head of the local branch of FENG. In 1997, when the group was in its infancy, it had 53 members. Today FENG has more than 14,000 members -- or ''colleagues,'' as they refer to one another -- with chapters all over the country. Tom also belongs to ExecuNet, which charges $399 a year and is open to all executives who earned in excess of $100,000, and IERG, the International Executive Resources Group. To ''cross-pollinate'' with people in other industries, he joined the New Jersey Senior Executives Networking Group and the Greater Philadelphia Senior Executives Networking Group. Tom has also created his own board -- a handful of friends, neighbors and former colleagues -- to whom he reports regularly on his job search. It seems safe to assume that Tom has already hit up his classmates from Harvard Business School, and I ask whether they've been helpful. ''I actually haven't called any of them yet,'' Tom says. He explains that because he's looking into several different avenues -- nonprofits, banking, even possibly teaching -- he's concerned about projecting ''a clean image to the marketplace.'' Seconds later, however, he realizes that this doesn't sound very convincing. ''I suppose I have a twinge of inhibition,'' he sighs. ''Why?'' Tom stops to think for a moment. ''I'm not sure I can answer that,'' he rev.finally says. Another long pause follows. ''You're not just invested in the expectations you have of yourself; you're invested in the expectations other people have of you,'' he says, pulling into the parking lot of the library. ''We're all worried that the people we respect will say, 'Oh, gee, he's not really up to it, is he?''' Tom takes a seat at the head table and before long, 30 people have crowded into the small conference room. All but three are men. Most are middle-aged, and more than a few are overweight; bellies strain against casual Friday attire. One after another, the FENGers give their ''elevator speeches,'' so called because they need to be short enough to deliver in an elevator. Three-quarters of them are out-of-work C.F.O.'s, C.P.A.'s or former vice presidents of finance who say they are looking for a position at a small- to medium-size company in the tristate area. Tom listens attentively as he spins his Mont Blanc pen between his fingers, the chairman presiding at his board meeting. When each person finishes his or her speech, Tom skillfully pares it down to a sentence or two and asks if anyone has any thoughts. The idea is that one of their FENG colleagues will have a relevant contact -- or better yet, a job lead. FENG, like many networking groups, expect members to provide three fresh leads -- leads

that haven't been plastered all over the Internet -- a month. As counterintuitive as it sounds, there's a theory behind it. In this economy, the thinking goes, the odds of getting a specific job are so slim that a lead is worth more as a trade good with which you can buy goodwill. It's an interesting, if not entirely persuasive, argument. But these groups serve another purpose that's beyond dispute: in a world in which job listings are posted on the Internet, company research is done online and the very idea of going to the post office to mail off résumés is as quaintly dated as sealing wax, they provide an antidote to the isolation of the job search. This becomes abundantly clear after the meeting, when an accountant who has been out of work since December 1999 introduces himself to me. He's currently supporting himself -- and his wife -- with what's left of a diminishing 401(k). ''Thank God for groups like this,'' he says before I even get a chance to ask. ''At least you get emotional support. You can't get that at home.'' ''What do you get at home?'' I venture. ''You get the attitude, 'Why don't you have a job yet?''' Back in the car, Tom confides that he may soon pass the torch at FENG. ''I have an emotional investment in this group,'' he says, ''but it might be time to find someone else to run it.'' He enjoys seeing the fellows (as he puts it), and like Lou with his spinning classes, presiding over FENG meetings keeps Tom in shape for his re-entry into the corporate world. As the oneyear anniversary of his unemployment approaches, however, he seems increasingly aware of the danger of allowing these meetings to become a surrogate job. While it may be more comfortable -- and comforting -- to network regularly with the same group of unemployed men, the practical returns, arguably limited from the beginning, diminish with each passing week. A few minutes after finishing up his shift at the Gap one evening in late January, Jeff wraps his ectomorphic frame in an enormous tan parka and walks over to a loud, overpriced hotel bar in Midtown to meet me for drinks. Jeff empties the bowl of peanuts in front of us, one manic fistful after the next, tilts his shaved head toward me and begins to trace the arc of his unemployment. After he lost his job, his severance package included several months of outplacement services -basically a free office he could use, along with a small support staff and a career counselor to help him make the transition to his next job. It was there, among lead counsels and C.F.O.'s -''Guys who were way up there,'' Jeff says -- that it started to dawn on him that he might be out longer than he anticipated. Jeff's outplacement proved to be little more than a halfway house between full-time employment and full-time unemployment. In November 2001, six months after being let go, he filed for personal bankruptcy protection. Despite his considerable salary, he'd racked up $100,000 in consumer debt over the past few years -- mostly credit-card advances for an online business he was developing. Making the interest payments had never been a problem, and he figured there would be plenty of time to round up investors later.

His job search, admittedly halfhearted as it was, was going nowhere. The metaphor Jeff uses to describe his situation involves his father, the revered sportswriter Charles Einstein. ''When my dad retired from newspapering after a lifetime of service,'' Jeff says, ''the Baseball Writers Association gave him a gold-plated press pass that would admit him to any ballpark in the country. The only problem was that no ballpark attendant knew what it was. For all practical purposes, the press pass was useless. That's how I felt about my résumé.'' Jeff tells me that he could see the resentment building in his wife. ''What I missed most is how Mara would shout 'Hooray!' when I came home from a long day,'' he says. ''She was just so happy to see me that she reacted like a child. It was a validation of everything: I'd been a good breadwinner, and I had a beautiful wife and daughter.'' While Lou seems not to have internalized his fall from the ranks of the upper middle class, Jeff has been positively consumed by his downward trajectory. As Lou pedaled away on his stationary bike at the local Y and Tom zoomed off to his various networking meetings, Jeff sat home and ruminated on the difference between guilt and shame. ''Shame is much more existential. It's about who or what you are or what you are not,'' he says as our third round of gin and tonics arrives. ''I felt guilty about losing my job and shame about not being able to support my family.'' Jeff was surprised at how intertwined his self-esteem and professional identity were, but the undergirding sensation -- that he was a fraud -- was familiar. He'd never finished college, and the fact that his only professional achievements had come in the illusory world of new media heightened his insecurity. Mara eventually confronted Jeff in couples' therapy. ''She told me to be a man,'' he says, ''to do what I had to do to support my family.'' But the message still wasn't getting through. Then came Mara's ultimatum to throw him out if he didn't get some sort of job. In that instant, everything changed. ''It hit me like a flash of blinding light,'' Jeff recalls. ''Things had run their course. I had hit rock bottom. It was like I was addicted to an old lifestyle. I had to make a decision to start over as someone new.'' So last November, Jeff took the E train from Forest Hills to 53rd Street and walked along Fifth Avenue, leaving a copy of his résumé in every store he passed. A week later he was offered the holiday position at the Gap, his first job on the clock since 1977, when he worked at a bookstore. Jeff took the subway to the apartment of a friend, another unemployed new media executive, to call Mara and tell her the news. As they spoke, she kept apologizing; she couldn't stop crying. Still, learning to live with Jeff's new job has been complicated for Mara. Thrilled as she is that he's out of the house and working again, telling friends has been difficult. ''It definitely stuck in my throat the first few times,'' she told me. ''Whenever I mentioned to anyone that Jeff's working at the Gap, they'd say: 'Oh, really? What's he doing there?''' It's clear, when hanging out with Jeff, why he was so much in demand during the Internet boom. He speaks in streams of abstract ideas about management systems and modern living that I can

barely keep up with. (''When frozen food and TV got together, the dinner table disappeared,'' he says, expounding on a theory he has about improving one's quality of life. ''The first casualty of technology is ritual.'') There's a visionary's lunacy to Jeff's intensity, but once I'm able to parse what he's saying, it's all very rational, methodical even. So I'm not surprised when he says he's been working on a proposal for the Gap on how it can use the Internet to build and nurture long-term relationships with its customers. The five-page initiative includes a short pitch for why he's the right man for the job: ''False modesty aside, my 18-plus years of senior digital marketing experience will likely surpass the aggregate digital experience of the top three individuals in any given interactive marketing agency or consultancy. Translation: substantially more bang for your interactive marketing buck.'' For Jeff, those 18-plus years endure as new-media muscle memory. Starting over as someone new may not be possible. The seminar that Lou learned about at the mixer begins at 8:30 on a bleary Saturday morning. About 20 people in a small rented classroom on the West Side of Manhattan, including several familiar faces from the mixer. Lou is already there when I arrive. He has decided that if he doesn't land a job by the spring, he's going to submit his application for a full-time job teaching high-school science in New Jersey. It's an idea he considered and rejected a year ago; at the time, it didn't seem possible that he'd be out of work much longer. This winter, however, he took the qualifying test. He aced it. Yet even as Lou makes plans to start a new, less lucrative career, dreams that he had for himself just a few years ago, in the flush of the 90's, remain imprinted on his imagination. At one point during the seminar, Schmier, who is much more sympathetic in the role of career coach than career-services salesman, instructs everyone to write down where, ideally, he'd like to be in 10 years. When he asks for a volunteer to read his out loud, Lou raises his hand. He envisions himself in Denver or San Francisco -- near good skiing and cycling -- as the chief technology officer of a large company at an annual salary of $1 million. Wearing a belted tan trench coat over a navy suit, a white shirt with monogrammed gold cuff links and a perfectly knotted silk tie, Tom has come to the old Board of Education building in Brooklyn on a Thursday evening for an informational meeting about the New York City Teaching Fellows Program. Like Lou, he's toying with the idea of becoming a teacher, one of the few sectors where jobs are still available. The program lasts two years and pays about $40,000 a year. Fellows are placed wherever they're needed, which means that the vast majority wind up in the Bronx or Central Brooklyn. An ad on the subway for the program -- ''You remember the name of your first-grade teacher. Who will remember yours?'' -- got Tom thinking. ''When I'm on my deathbed at 84,'' he asks rhetorically, ''will my children be proud of what I did?''

During the session, a first-year fellow who teaches math to eighth graders in Bushwick tells the group that he spends most of his time disciplining his kids. When one student became violent, he says, he had to call the police on his cellphone. Nevertheless, afterward, Tom sounds very excited about the prospect of becoming a fellow. A practicing Catholic, he sees teaching in the inner city as a sort of secular priesthood and imagines telling his students, ''My mission is to make you world-beaters -- and I've got the background to do it.'' He's even thinking that he could incorporate himself as a 501(c)3, in order to solicit donations for state-of-the-art classroom supplies. In terms of making it work financially, Tom figures he can sell the house, ''reconfigure the fleet'' (i.e., get rid of at least one of the family's three cars) and reposition the stock portfolio to produce more than $25,000 a year in interest income. This would obviously be a big departure from his life in Princeton, and I ask Tom what brought him to it. He pauses for a second to think, then floats one idea: ''Rejection. My fancy credentials don't seem to be resonating. Maybe that life isn't my calling after all.'' A few minutes later, before he heads off to catch his train back home to Princeton, another possibility emerges. Tom is tired of the job search -- tired of going to one networking meeting after another, of seeing the same faces, of hearing the same speeches. ''I'm looking for a conclusion here,'' he says. ''I would like to get this thing resolved so I can rebuild my identity and get on with my life.'' Photos: Cast out by the new economy: Jeff Einstein and his wife, Mara, and daughter, Cayla, at home in Queens.; Lou Casagrande, an information-technology consultant unable to find work in his field since June 2001, and his family at home in Summit, N.J.; Tom Pyle, of Princeton and Harvard Business School and unemployed at 50, with his wife, Molly, on the Princeton campus. (Judith Joy Ross for The New York Times)

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...Index: 1. Seniority: A blessing or a curse? 2.1 Summary 2.2 Moral value 2.3 Reference 2.4 Date of publish 2. Driving to work is tough 3.5 Summary 3.6 Moral value 3.7 Reference 3.8 Date of Publish 3. A living nightmare: customer who show up early & late 4.9 Summary 4.10 Moral value 4.11 Reference 4.12 Date of publish 4. Work routines that drains you 5.13 Summary 5.14 Moral value 5.15 Reference 5.16 Date of publish 5. Dealing with under qualified co-worker 6.17 Summary 6.18 Moral value 6.19 Reference 6.20 Date of publish 6. Employee Theft 7.21 Summary 7.22 Moral value 7.23 Reference 7.24 Date of publish 7. No one appreciates your hard work 8.25 Summary 8.26 Moral value 8.27 Reference 8.28 Date of publish 8. Is someone stealing your idea at work? 9.29 Summary 9.30 Moral value 9.31 Reference 9.32 Date of publish 9. What’s the deal with after hour meeting? 10.33 Summary 10.34 Moral value 10.35 Reference 10.36 Date of publish 10. Why are your co-worker so annoying? 11.37 Summary 11.38 Moral value 11.39 Reference 11.40 Date of publish 1. Seniority: A Blessing or a Curse? Seniority is the magical title that everyone in every job wishes to......

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