The Great Depression

In 2001, the people I laid off last year were laid off a second time.

In October, I attended the funeral of Steve Farber, the brilliant salesman and promoter who had been chief operating officer of Cybergold. During part of 1999 and 2000, we worked together at the online marketing firm that improbably was then Oakland’s highest-profile company. When Mayor Jerry Brown joined Steve and other executives to welcome the dot-com era downtown, Cybergold was as emblematic of the new Oakland as it was of the new economy. We had moved into the First Interstate Bank building but dreamed one day of upgrading to the palatial Rotunda. Steve wrapped entire buses in the crassly ingenious advertising slogan “I got paid for doing it,” and he even had an assistant call the Russian government to ask what Vladimir Putin would charge to drape the message around the Kremlin.

Steve and other executives possessed enough hubris to believe that Cybergold might reinvent the economics of the advertising industry by paying consumers directly to read advertising. I had enough of my own to imagine that a separate Cybergold project might single-handedly reinvent the economies of publishing and recording. Other Cybergoldians dreamed other dreams, though some merely dreamed of wealth.

It was a different millennium, and to many of us Steve’s death of heart failure at age 42 represented its symbolic end. He was larger than life but living on the edge, mocking his heart condition by riding his bicycle for hours at a time and volunteering as a costumed mascot for a minor-league baseball team. Because we all had great affection for Steve, and because Cybergold’s long-suffering Web site preceded him in oblivion by only a few weeks, his passing afforded former colleagues a somber but oddly welcome occasion to gather one last time.

After his funeral, thirteen former coworkers attended a lunch in Steve’s honor at Garibaldi’s. Following the meal, it came time to settle the bill. “Someone said, ‘The people who have jobs are paying for this,'” former employee Damien Fuentes recalled. “We looked around and said ‘Who’s working?’ And then we realized that only three people had jobs.” This was indicative of the plight of Steve’s other ex-colleagues. Two weeks later, twenty almost entirely different Cybergoldians gathered over dinner in San Francisco. Out-of-work salesman Joe DeMarco wondered aloud how many others shared his condition. “Half the people raised their hand,” he said. “And a lot of the people had been unemployed for a long time.”

It was an anxious year for the people we all once worked alongside — and our anxiety was sadly representative of the broader Bay Area malaise. The recession was the dominant local event in 2001. It was bigger, sadder, and far closer to home for many of us than the tragic events of 9-11. Many of us lost jobs once again in 2001, including several of the fifteen people I had laid off the year before.

For many of us who worked in the intersection of the Internet and the media, 2001 was the worst year of our lives. Hardly a week went by that a close friend wasn’t dismissed, downsized, or reassigned. Unemployment was the topic of conversation at most of the social gatherings I attended, from Super Bowl Sunday in Santa Clara, through early spring drinks at Oakland’s Alley Cat lounge, an escapist summer vacation in Spain, and last fall’s Cybergold reunions. This year was the first time in my three decades of employment that my salary shrank involuntarily, and the first time I ever had to rely on credit cards to pay the mortgage.

More to the point, it was the first time I was really depressed as an adult. It was the first time many of my friends were depressed too.

The Bay Area is in the middle of a great depression — not a depression in the economic sense, but one of the wrenching, emotional variety. Many of the people I know best were deeply depressed in 2001. They were melancholy for all the conventional reasons that accompany job loss — shame, financial woes, family tensions, feelings of personal inadequacy. But there were other causes too, and those often hurt more.

Maggie Benson and her husband had just signed the papers on a $3,500-a-month mortgage when I laid her off for the first time in May of 2000. She was six months pregnant. Two months later, she lost a second job. But after taking time off for the birth of her daughter, Benson picked herself up again and returned to work last January as the full-time West Coast bureau chief of TechWeb, a post from which she occasionally threw me freelance-writing jobs. Four months later she lost that job too, and I lost one of the six freelance clients that ultimately vaporized on me in 2001.

So Benson, 31, again returned to the job market, sending out several résumés a week for three months without receiving a single call back. Against this backdrop, she shifted her focus to quality-of-life issues. She enjoyed the extra time with her infant daughter and embraced painting, yoga, and running. “I came up with some conclusions that my thirties would be about creating things of beauty,” she said. But the former editor found it hard to reconcile this new resolution with the reality that she couldn’t even land a job at a day-care center, much less one in journalism. “I was feeling desperate; I really hadn’t felt that way since I got out of college,” she said. “I think I cried every day.”

One evening, she appealed to a higher power. While crying in her bed she penned a letter. “Spirit,” she wrote. “I am lost. I don’t know what to do. Please come to me as you have before and help me to find the thing I will truly love and be good at and will make enough money doing. Please help me to take control of my professional destiny and to find contentment in this area that has often brought me grief, but also joy and fulfillment.”

As it turned out, Benson soon landed a fulfilling job as an editor and producer. But then her husband’s company was sold, and he lost the dot-com sales management job he’d held for four years. “He’s in a huge world of denial about it,” she said. Job-related anxiety once more darkened the family’s door.

Typically, widespread layoffs are in reaction to antiquated economies or ideas, industries whose time has come and gone — whether it’s the ’80s downsizing that dismantled old-style corporate hierarchies, or the ’90s defense cutbacks that accompanied the end of the Cold War. But this recession is a rejection of the future — or at least what looked like the future to a lot of us. And for just that reason it is dispiriting in an entirely different way. For the dot-com generation, 2001 killed off the novel idea that employment could be a revolutionary act.

Amid the media’s obsessive focus on the reasons for taking dot-com jobs, inspirational impulses received short shrift. Yet for many of us who flocked to the sector, the motivation was more spiritual than monetary. I left a fulfilling job and almost-vested pension at the San Jose Mercury News because I could imagine nothing more exciting than the prospect of building a Web-based service that would allow writers, musicians, and artists to upload and sell their digital output in much the way that curio collectors swap their wares at eBay.

Chris Gardner abandoned fourteen rewarding years as a news photographer because I filled his head with earnest nonsense about how together we would improve the lives of photographers everywhere. He did it even though he knew it would be difficult to return to his profession, a notoriously difficult place to find well-paid jobs. But like me, he dreamed the golden dream. And surviving the death of this dream was even harder than weathering the financial uncertainties that accompanied his return to reality. “I was devastated,” he said. “I’ve always been an underdog guy, and I really believed that this had potential to be a really great tool for the aspiring artist and photographer.”

By the time the 38-year-old Gardner knew the dot-com phase of his life was over, he was a different person. “I had definitely been feeling unhealthy and was obviously in the worst shape of my life,” he said. “So I decided I’d get a checkup. The doctor asked me, ‘So how’s your appetite?’ I said, ‘It’s good.’ He said, ‘I’d say it’s a little too good.'” The once-slender Gardner was no longer thin, having doubled his cholesterol intake on a steady dot-com diet of Pop Tarts, cookies, soda, and TV dinners.

Meanwhile, Gardner’s wife, Mary, lost balance due to her own technology career. She was earning more money than she’d ever made before, but she’d gotten away from much of what she loved. “I couldn’t keep up with my friends,” she said. “I couldn’t keep up with the things I wanted to do. My life was out of balance in many ways.”

Mary, 36, soon got her home life back, albeit in a terrifying way. Just days after the birth of her second child, she lost her job. “When I first received the phone call from the CEO I was so furious,” she said. “That’s what I said to him: ‘How can you call me when I’m here with my ten-day-old baby and lay me off?'” Yet she soon came to view her job loss as a blessing in disguise. She was able to spend seven months at home with her newborn son, twice as long as she’d taken off after the birth of her three-year-old daughter. Still, it was an anxious time, and financially brutal. “I was feeling pretty good back when I had $30,000 of savings, and now I have nothing,” she said. “Chris wanted to buy food and I had to call him up and say, ‘Don’t go to the store, we’re out of money.'”

Chris eventually overcame his pride and filed for unemployment. He also put himself on a diet and lost 26 pounds. And just last week, he landed a part-time position as staff photographer for an alternative newsweekly in San Luis Obispo. Mary, meanwhile, is finishing a ten-week replacement stint for a marketing manager who’s out on her own maternity leave. But soon she’ll again be unemployed. “We still have a question mark at the end of the sentence,” she said.

For people like the Gardners, it was a year of denial, resolution, and personal discovery. Many spent the better part of the year wrestling with regrets: how they didn’t work hard enough or worked too much, how they chased money, neglected their families, or suppressed their true desires. Many, like me, were forced to confront failure.

Jonas Halpren found himself alternately supported by his wife and working jobs he didn’t really like to make his own contribution to the family income. He left Cybergold for a better job elsewhere, only to be laid off on the very same day his former colleagues also lost their jobs. He started waiting tables, then took a job selling taxicab ads for Eller Media. It didn’t excite him, but it was all he could find. “It sounds really pretentious, but I just wasn’t happy doing it,” he said. “I became extremely depressed. I have never been like that in my life. I couldn’t sleep.” When the advertising market tanked, he was laid off.

But even as Halpren, 31, faced the toughest job market of his lifetime, his wife, an attorney, was fielding multiple job offers. “It’s really affected my wife because she has this husband now who doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s put a strain on things. I never thought that having a job or not having a job could really affect your life with someone you love.” Ultimately, the couple abandoned their San Francisco apartment to save money.

Halpren was not the only Cybergoldian smothered by the area’s high cost of living. Former salesman John Reberger explored Lake Tahoe as a strategy for reducing expenses. “It probably costs me close to two grand a month now just to live here, between car insurance, groceries, and rent,” he said while clearing out his San Francisco apartment for his new job as a Squaw Valley ski instructor. “Just for the winter, I’ll probably save close to five grand.”

In taking to the slopes for the season, Reberger, 32, is returning to a career he first held ten years ago. He hasn’t lost faith in technology jobs, but thinks it’s fairly likely that his next one won’t be in the Bay Area, the nation’s costliest rental-housing market. “It’s an expensive place to be, and it’s definitely an expensive place to be when you’ve been focused on high-risk jobs,” he said. After living on savings and relying on credit to make ends meet, Reberger left the area more familiar with unemployment insurance and five-digit charge-card debt.

To people who never drank the high-tech Kool-Aid, the recession may look like nothing more than an overdue triumph of the immutable laws of business and economics. But for the generation that fully embraced the Bay Area’s latest cultural-reinvention project, more than just a job was lost. Something as profound and potentially transformational as the ’60s had died.

Unemployment set in motion Joe DeMarco’s search for meaning. Following the loss of the technology sales job he took upon leaving Cybergold, DeMarco departed last week for a month-long trip to Brazil, which followed several other trips in the last year. Before that, he completed a ten-day Buddhist meditation retreat. He also has volunteered at the San Francisco Food Bank and Camp Okizu, a retreat for kids with cancer and their siblings. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s run into similarly situated ex-dotcommers.

“I think we were hoping to find something in our jobs, in the so-called dot-com lifestyle that we had, but it ended up being meaningless,” said DeMarco, 35. “So we tried to find it some other way — through travel, through new hobbies.”

Like many who have tangled with the recession, DeMarco still is grappling with his priorities. Upon returning from Brazil in January, he expects to consider a career change after years of success in sales. “I’ve actually considered working for a nonprofit,” he said. “I’ve considered police work. I’ve considered becoming a mortgage broker. I’ve considered a bunch of stuff. I’ve also considered getting back into sales.

“I really haven’t been looking for a job. I think when I start I might get depressed again.”


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