Layoff culture

Tougher life choices for this generation

Entering adulthood used to be like wading into a gently sloping lake. You got your feet wet with a degree or job. Then maybe you found an apartment, and eventually a life partner. Soon, you were swimming in deep water.

But today, it feels as though the water gets deep fast. Young people can't just splash around and "find themselves" anymore. The world has changed.

Work can disappear with little warning. Skills grow obsolete fast. Lifetime employment and corporate loyalty are mostly things of the past. Compared to two decades ago, the average American worker puts in an extra 164 hours per year on the job, according to economist Juliet Schor. And adjusted for inflation, middle-class U.S. workers make less than they did in 1971.

These pressures mean that anyone who wants to "have it all" - career, family and leisure - needs to look way ahead. We parents would be wise to talk through the choices very explicitly with our children, especially the majority who are likely to want both work and kids.

We can explain the need for a sharply different perspective on career planning. For example, a friend of mine in her 20s who just got married says that she and others her age won't rely on working for an employer. The long hours and lack of security aren't worth it. Her plan is to run her own business and live frugally. Great idea; I hope for her sake it works out.

Another option is to choose an explicitly family-friendly career, something women have been doing for ages - a career with predictable hours and even some job security. Men increasingly are doing likewise; they make up ever more of our nurses, school teachers, bank tellers and food servers.

Even for the most ambitious, there are ways to craft a career that allows for more family time. A study of nearly 1,000 women who graduated from Harvard College between 1988 and 1991 showed that, 15 years after graduation, the ones who became doctors and lawyers had an easier time combining work and family than did those who later got an MBA. The doctors and lawyers had shifted to part-time work, opened their own practices with like-minded colleagues, or moved into the nonprofit sector or government work. The businesswomen, by contrast, faced an either-or choice: Put in grueling hours or quit.

Marissa Mayer, the new Yahoo chief executive, is an example. She's 37, will give birth this fall, and plans "a few weeks" of maternity leave during which she will continue to work. But if you want a different sort of work-family balance for yourself, then perhaps you shouldn't plan on following in her footsteps.

Stories about families working together to make hard choices are encouraging. Austrian tennis player Sybille Bammer, for example, had a child at 21 and quit competing. She went back to tennis after her life partner, and the child's father, became her coach, hitting partner and Mr. Mom. For a while, they lived on $500 a month.

Then there's Angela Braly, chief executive of health benefits giant WellPoint, whose husband left his family business for a more flexible schedule in real estate and teaching. They have three children. How do we discuss the complexities of the modern balancing act without blunting our kids' ambitions? I can hear them mocking us now: Settle for the mommy track early, dear, and save yourself a lot of angst. But that's not the message. On the contrary, what's important is figuring out what you want and planning for it, precisely so you don't end up sidetracked.

Couples considering a family should talk openly about their expectations, too. You know the old saying: If you don't know where you're going, you're sure to get there.

This essay was first published in Newsday.

Time for a 'living wage' for the middle class?

With millions out of work, complaints about the decline in middle-class wages may seem misplaced. But without some shoring up, the middle class will remain dispirited -- and our economy, which is 70 percent dependent on consumer spending, will remain in the dumper.

It may be that there's a role for government to play in buttressing these eroding wages, which result not only in a declining standard of living, but also in a family life so pressure-filled that it leads to its own problems: angry homes, fast-food diets, dependence on alcohol and drugs.

Calling for any sort of government role during these tea party times can raise charges of socialism. But the idea of a wage that supports some minimum standard of living -- shelter, clothing, food -- has been broached on and off for more than a century.

In the late 1800s, social activists began protesting wages earned by a working-class man that were not sufficient to sustain his family, without the additional wages of working children and mothers. The Catholic Church published a fundamental social teaching, "Rerum Novarum" (on capital and labor), that read, "Wealthy owners of the means of production and employers must never forget that both divine and human law forbid them to squeeze the poor and wretched for the sake of gain or to profit from the helplessness of others."

Shortly afterward, Australia's courts ruled that an employer must pay a wage that guaranteed a standard of living that was reasonable for "a human being in a civilized community" for a family of four to live in "frugal comfort."

In the United States, these ideas led to laws forbidding child labor, making education compulsory and protecting women from exploitive labor conditions. The campaign to establish a "family wage" was defeated, but in 1938, a lower standard, the federal minimum wage, was passed.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Daniel Patrick Moynihan and in 1968, a group of 1,200 economists including Paul Samuelson and John Kenneth Galbraith, have all supported some kind of minium income guarantee.

Echoes of this debate are being heard now, in the Vatican's critique last week of the global financial system, and in places where labor unions still have some sway: In the New York City Council, which at the urging of retail workers may require employers in commercial developments built with public subsidies to pay at least $10 an hour, a "living wage" higher than the minimum wage of $7.25; and in Albany, where the State Legislature in April passed an increase to $9 an hour for home health aides, who are represented by the influential 1199 SEIU United Health Care Workers East. That increase takes effect on Long Island in 2013.

It's easy to see why the lowest-paid workers would need a boost from someone powerful enough to argue on their behalf. But to make the argument for the middle class, one has to believe that this great swath of America, nearly half the country, has special value. And it does: The stability and upward mobility of the middle class not only underpin the U.S. economy but give America its famously optimistic and innovative spirit.

That spirit is on display as the middle class makes the best of things today: The average American has added around a month's worth of work, 164 hours per year, in the last two decades. One-third of American families have reduced their savings for college, according to a 2010 Sallie Mae/Gallup poll, and another 15 percent are not saving at all. Retirement savings are in similar decline.

How much more can the middle class cinch in its belt, before we lose what's precious about this way of life?

First published in Newsday.

Economy makes more kids homeless

Every year as the cold weather arrives, the U.S. Conference of Mayors conducts a survey of who's living in homeless shelters. This year, it uncovered a troubling statistic: a 9 percent increase in the number of families who are homeless.

These numbers have been increasing - the Department of Housing and Urban Development notes a 30 percent growth since 2007 - and are expected to bump up again next year.

Many of these families, remarkably, continue to function, even as the basic need for shelter is threatened or removed entirely. Wendell Chu, the school superintendent in East Islip, says that more students are showing up for class with their homes facing foreclosure. Many more qualify for free and reduced-price lunch - another measure of families in distress.

"This creates stress for these kids," he says. "It affects how kids come to school, their readiness to learn."

As the country continues to pump billions of dollars into homeless programs, food stamps and other safety-net services, the very people these programs are meant to help - mothers and children - continue to struggle. While the welfare overhaul of the late 1990s was intended to create a path from welfare to work, its effect in the current troubled economy may well be simply dumping people without support.

The mayors were asked to identify the three main causes of homelessness among households with children. The top responses were unemployment (76 percent), lack of affordable housing (72 percent), poverty (56 percent), domestic violence (24 percent) and low-paying jobs (20 percent).

To be sure, we are living through a historic economic catastrophe, and this period will leave a mark on our national psyche. More Americans were poor in 2009 - 43.6 million total - than at any time since the U.S. Census Bureau began estimating the poverty rate 50 years ago. Jobless rates are also very high.

Our social safety net simply has too many holes. While some dismiss the homeless - depicting them as either too crazy, drugged or afraid of the authorities to seek help - surely we're not ready to concede that there's an acceptable level of homelessness for families.

The Long Island Coalition for the Homeless is preparing for its annual count of homeless people later this month. Last year, the group found 1,046 families in Suffolk County and 446 in Nassau living in emergency shelters or transitional housing.

Long Island wasn't part of the Conference of Mayors survey, but the coalition's Julee King says the trends hold true here. In the past 18 to 24 months, the coalition has fielded more calls from families, particularly those being evicted because the homes they're renting are being repossessed.

It's extraordinary that this is happening on well-to-do Long Island. Fortunately, we have a network of charities, religious and secular, that provides temporary housing. But it would be better to prevent homelessness in the first place. The dislocation is disruptive, as the school superintendent points out, and it's inhumane.

Boston is experimenting with banning evictions. Many cities, including Chicago, are expanding consumer credit counseling. Of those surveyed in the mayors' study, 92 percent said housing vouchers to reduce rents would be an effective remedy for homelessness, and 71 percent advocate higher wages for low-end jobs. Given economic realities, that's unlikely to happen any time soon.

Still, these are important ideas. Nobody, least of all children, should have to cope with so much insecurity when it comes to something as basic as shelter.

Originally published in Newsday

Flexible work: Twenty years of progress lost

In July, a Congressional committee, the Joint Economic Committee, heard from work-home experts about the disappearance of flexible work arrangements – a hazard of the economic recession. Cynthia Thomas Calvert, deputy director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California said callers to the center “unanimously expressed their needs for flexibility and feelings of near desperation at facing unemployment because of their inability to work a standard schedule.” Calvert went on to say that employers may be using the recession as an excuse to terminate family caregivers. Between January 2008 and July 2009, the center had heard from 45 women who were fired shortly before, during or shortly after their pregnancies. In many cases, supervisors had expressed doubt about their ability to combine work and family.

Thirty percent of working moms, whose companies have had layoffs in the past 12 months, are working longer hours, according to CareerBuilder’s annual Mother’s Day survey taken in 2009. Fourteen percent or working moms had taken on second jobs in the past year.

In good times, workers frequently seized the opportunity to use “flex time” and family leave, to telecommute and to take paid sick days. But the recession has brought with it a "silent fright" among workers, Joanne Brundage told the Washington Post in March. The executive director of a mothers’ networking group, Mothers & More, Brundage said the current mindset is to "work as many hours as you can. Make yourself indispensable. Don’t ever complain. Don’t ever ask for anything. I’m just horrified. We may as well just forget the last 20 years.”

Joblessness, despair and a way out

I just finished listening to a podcast of Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning." I picked it up because several people I interviewed for my stories on long-term unemployment told me they had read it -- often with a hint that it had helped them overcome despair. It's a very difficult book to read because it begins with the horrific tale of Frankl's three years in Nazi concentration camps. I've actually tried to read it twice before and put it down. The podcast turned out to be a good option for me because it kept me listening. I had several "aha" moments learning about Frankl's ideas. Human anxiety can often be traced back to difficulties in knowing what gives our lives meaning, he says, a theory he developed into a full school of psychiatry called logotherapy. Frankl describes three paths to meaning in life. One is through doing -- finding meaning in creativity and work. The second is through experiencing, either love or art or natural beauty. The third is by being tested through suffering -- unavoidable suffering -- and keeping hold of one's dignity and humanity.

The long-term unemployed people I spoke with were clearly referring to finding meaning through suffering. Frankl discusses the depressing effects of job loss in a couple of places. I got the sense that reading Frankl's book had kept some of the people I met from committing suicide.

I marvel that our society treats unemployment so lightly when it has this sort of consequence for the people who go through it. The business world has fully embraced layoffs over the last couple of decades. It seems like a tragic direction.

Doubting the breadwinner

Today, I read this very honest essay from a woman whose live-in boyfriend has been laid off. He's pursuing his "big dreams" and living on his severance -- while she's wondering if he's ever going to bring in a paycheck again. She's trying not to be "ugly," while at the same time revisiting her hopes for a house and kids some day. The writer, Esther Martinez, concludes:

I hope our relationship makes it through this recession. I wonder how many won't. My boyfriend's layoff has stirred up scary notions about love - that it really might be conditional, and that the conditions are not always pretty.

My first reaction was admiration for Ms. Martinez for her courage in exposing her feelings like this. I remember being so ashamed about how much of my regard for my husband was tied to his bread-winning. Of course, we weren't just dreaming about kids when his joblessness started, we had a 3-year-old and an 18-month-old, as well as a mortgage. So, perhaps I can be forgiven for my anxiety over how we were going to hold this house of cards together. I was freelancing at the time, and shortly went back to full-time work. But my salary didn't come close to covering our expenses.

My second reaction to the Martinez essay was how hard it is to convey these fears to people who have not been through it. I will sometimes tell people that many "social ills" can arise because of a layoff. But that's a euphemistic mask I'm placing over what we went through. Ms. Martinez says it better. By social ills, I mean to hint at domestic violence, divorce, substance abuse, depression, suicide, crime. Those things seemed a lot more possible during the layoffs. A middle-class, Catholic, law-abider, I had never expected the wings of those problems to brush me.

I wasn't the only one who assumed my husband's status as a spouse was diminished, though. I told one man that Dan had just been laid off for a second time, and this man seemed to view it as a come-on, and as an invitation to move in and pursue me. I guess he thought that if my husband wasn't fulfilling his bread-winner duties that we would soon be divorced. Those assumptions run deep in American culture.

Spared the axe

Dan's company let go more than 5,000 people worldwide yesterday. He was spared. I can't say for sure that this is the first time he's kept his job when others have lost theirs. But in the past when a big layoff has been announced, he has been one of the ones let go. So, surviving is a whole new experience for us.

One thing that's different is that several people told him, before yesterday's big announcement, that he was safe. That must be how it works on the non-job-loser side.

Another thing is that he's spent a lot of time puzzling about the people who were let go. A "very nice" woman who had worked there for 20 years. A young woman who was very sharp and was running his counterpart division in another country. It probably really never makes sense except to the bean-counters on the inside.

I suggested that maybe the 20-year veteran was making a high salary, so it saved the company a lot of money to cut her. But Dan says that's not right, because her rank was still pretty low. She was called out of a meeting he was in, then came back teary, grabbed her things and left the room. She could have been any of us.

Everybody's in the unemployment pool now

Since I started writing this blog, the global economy has turned downward and almost everybody is now worried about losing their jobs. Especially here in New York, where many of the big banks are based, the layoffs are coming in huge, frightening waves. This is going to sound perverse, but it's somewhat comforting. The majority of my neighbors can now understand what we've been going through.

Sympathetic news stories have begun appearing, along with advice on handling the added family strife. Political leaders like New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg are talking about creating programs to get people back into jobs.

Of course, Dan has been newly employed for just three months. To me, this has become the only sort of insurance we can count on -- he's too new in the job to be let go yet. The company had a purpose for hiring him and, even faced with the crummy economic outlook, has not yet jetisoned his project yet. It's a project that ultimately saves money, so it may be something the company continues to pursue. Still, when the project is up and running, who's to say they'll keep any of the people who got it to that point? I would say that Dan safely has another 21 months of shelf life. If the company decides they don't need him, we will know because they will start giving him little hints. Far be it from corporate America to be straightforward. They might assign him someone to treat him badly -- this has happened twice out of the four layoffs. Then they could deny him an expected bonus. This is supposed to make him quit so that the company does not have to pony up for unemployment insurance. Only as a last resort will someone actually say to his face, "We don't need you any more."

One of the kindest layoffs, in retrospect, was by a company that was being sold and gave him three months to find another job. He was able to find one within that time, and we suffered no loss of income, no gap in our health insurance coverage. Plus, when you have a job, it's easier to find a new one, as the old addage goes.

So, corporate managers of the world, take heed. There is a morally superior way to fire people, should you choose to use it. Don't let me hear you whining over your martinis about how hard it is. You do have a choice.

I am not my job

Newspaper people are losing jobs left and right. And, you know, being verbal types, they are writing a lot about it. The Columbia Journalism Review is giving them a forum to sound off, called "Parting Thoughts." Most of the posts are good reads. But there is one I particularly enjoyed, by Todd Engdahl, a 31-year veteran of the Denver Post. Engdahl is merciless with people who don't adjust to the changing times. His post is entitled, "Sorry to be blunt, but get over it." Yes, it's a little journalist-style macho. But I loved this line (last paragraph): "Your job is not your identity."

For so many of us, this is what job loss is about, losing our identity. I was lucky in that I confronted similar identity issues when I had a baby and, about two years later, left my high-profile reporting job for stay-at-home mommy status and a little freelance writing. I suffered the entire meltdown at that time and so no longer have to worry about losing it ever again. (Maybe.)

For three months, my heart raced at odd times throughout the day. I saw a doctor, who gave me a portable device to record my heart rhythms. I would then connect the device to a phone and beam them in to the lab, as a sort of progress report. I believe the technical term for my problem was panic.

How much of this is going on with the current wave of layoffs? Do people become immune to it after being fired a few times? Or does it slowly destroy their souls?

Why do we judge each other based on our professional titles, anyway?

If you're out there reading, why not post some ideas on this.

A trio of books on middle class woes

A wave of books about the dwindling prospects of America's middle class is hitting the shelves. Author Nan Mooney has written "(Not) Keeping up with Our Parents: The Decline of the Professional Middle Class." For the book, she interviewed more than 100 social workers, product managers, college administrators, factory-equipment salesmen and other members of the middle class about their financial lives. Here's what they told her, according to a Q&A with

Most of them earned between $30,000 and $70,000 a year, yet despite good educations and respectable incomes, many still shouldered crushing debts and had serious doubts about their financial futures. They all aspire to basic comforts -- a place to live, reliable healthcare, education for themselves and their children -- but come across as a little bewildered by their seemingly perpetual state of financial insecurity. "As you get older, it becomes less okay to admit that you're struggling," one 42-year-old graphic designer tells Mooney. "People just assume that you must be doing okay. I've noticed that those who are still having trouble start to go underground about their financial lives."

Next up with his concerns about the American middle class is Peter Gosselin, an economics reporter with the Los Angeles Times (or, at least he's with the Times as of this current writing. The newspaper is planning to announce a huge layoff next week, which may have influenced Gosselin's mood as he wrote.)

Gosselin is the author of "High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families." The book was reviewed in the New York Times last week.

The author focuses on how much more we feel our financial lives are at risk, according to reviewer Noam Scheiber, who writes:

Americans have seen their financial situations grow far less stable over the last few decades, he reports ....

Scouring the data, Gosselin finds that the income of a middle-class family in the early 1970s typically rose or fell by no more than 17 percent in a given year; today, that range is plus or minus 26 percent. And it’s not just the middle class who’ve seen their incomes fluctuate wildly. The most affluent tenth of the country saw a slightly greater rise in volatility.

The cause of this increased turbulence, Gosselin says, is a changing labor market and a decades-long erosion of the corporate and social safety net. A generation ago, when unemployment relief was more generous, when companies provided liberal health and pension benefits and private insurers weren’t as stingy as they are today, a serious illness or the loss of a job usually wasn’t devastating. Now, such a setback is much more likely to bring economic ruin.

Finally, there is "Strapped" from Tamara Draut, who works at the Demos think tank. Her subtitle is "Why America's 20- and 3-Somethings Can't Get Ahead." That pretty much says it all. Draut, like Mooney, places a lot of blame on the rising cost of college and health insurance. Here's a good link if you want to read more.

Where the layoff culture began

I remember when companies laid people off reluctantly, for fear the company would be branded a Bad Place to Work. The last time I remember being aware of this was in the early 1990s, when I was working as a business reporter for the L.A. Times. So, I was in the milieu. When did the culture change, so that Wall Street now frequently views layoffs as a reason to invest? Most discussions I read start with Jack Welch and his 20-year reign at General Electric (1981-2001). Tom O'Boyle accused Welch in the 1998 diatribe , "At Any Cost: Jack Welch, General Electric and the Pursuit of Profit." And so does Robert Reich, the former secretary of labor for Bill Clinton, in his latest (2007), "Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life."

Welch was one of the original super-downsizers. "Before Welch arrived," Reich writes, "most GE employees spent their entire careers with the company and knew they'd be looked after when they retired. Welch put an end to that." (Full disclosure: my Uncle Jack retired from GE and is somewhat in awe of Welch.)

Between 1981, when he became CEO, and 1985, Welch laid off one in four employees, or more than 100,000 in all. This earned him the nickname "Neutron Jack." Even when times were good, Reich says, Welch encouraged managers to lay off their bottom 10 percent of subordinates each year "to keep GE competitive."

Sounds more like he wanted to scare the pants off anyone working there. I'm sure they were working long hours to meet these demands -- not exactly a family friendly environment. Funny how this macho stuff all dovetails together -- be the best, work the hardest, abandon your family for all practical purposes. Did these GE employees have working spouses?? The nannies of the world really should form a union. They have two-income couples at their whim more than they know.

But back to Jack. Reich says he was simply responding to Wal-Mart-style pressures from investors. Just as Wal-Mart was able to bargain for lower prices from suppliers by attracting legions of shoppers, so have the managers of mutual funds and pension funds squeezed companies for higher profits.

The courtesy of a phone call

Today, Dan got a call from a recruiter who represents a law firm that interviewed him two days ago. The recruiter wanted to tell him that they were no longer considering him for the job. Possibly he's "overqualified." We were elated.

Don't get me wrong, we are long since past thinking "overqualified" is a compliment. It's simply something people say to mask a thousand reasons not to hire someone. It's just that those thousand reasons are all more difficult to say. "We realized that Jim's brother-in-law is a much better fit," perhaps. Or, "we hated your hair." Or, "our third-quarter numbers are in the tank, and we're freezing the hire." Who ever knows what irrationality lurks in the hearts of men? No, we were elated just to emerge from limbo. Overjoyed that someone took the courtesy to call. Because as any job seeker will tell you, much of the time, no matter how positive the interview, you are left to stew and wonder.

I remember when it was not this way. It changed sometime shortly after the turn of the century, or maybe right after Sept. 11 when everyone was hurting for many different reasons. Interviewers used to tell you when they would get back to you, and they pretty much kept their word. Even if it was a difficult call to make -- a "no" instead of a "yes" -- at least you knew.

Career counselors used to avise asking for feedback from employers who rejected you. Then you knew what to brush up on the next time. One time an executive editor told me I didn't seem to want the job enough. I didn't "reach across the desk" and grab him by the lapels. Seriously. Now, it's mostly just silence.

A silence that squeezes your soul like a lemon. I even prefer the lapel comment to silence.