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"The people I know, nobody's strapped for cash," says Grace, a laid-off tech company worker who splits her time between San Francisco and Sunnyvale and founded the blog Stuff Unemployed People Like. (Among the entries: "Buying Game Consoles with Unemployment Checks," "Buying Perrier with Food Stamps," and "Shunning Public Transportation Because 'It's for Poor People.'" In anticipation of future job interviews, she declined to disclose her last name.) "We didn't live above our means. We didn't get involved in the real-estate market. For me, it sucks not to have income, but I'm definitely laid-back enough about it that I can make unemployment work."
Neil Howe, an expert on generational psychology and coauthor of Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069, says the sunny outlook of laid-off young workers is a symptom of the endemic hopefulness witnessed in the so-called Millennial generation of young professionals whose formative years coincided with the longest economic expansion in American history.
"There's none of that scared quality — 'I have to take second or third best choice,'" he says. "This is not the time to go out and prepare food [for a living]. You wouldn't even think of that. Oh, and by the way, from time to time I'll get my coffee at Starbucks. What the hell."
This "almost mechanical optimism," as Howe calls it, may be tempered in significant ways by the psychology of stragglers from the preceding generation, known as Gen X — workers now entering their late 30s and early 40s — who had little faith in sanctioned career paths and developed a high tolerance for job turnover and freelance work. "I wouldn't be surprised if some of the energy here and some of the puckish delight in having fun when the chips are down isn't the influence of late-wave X-ers," he says. "A little bit of the Millennial confidence, and a little bit of the X-er defying-the-odds-and-having-fun type of thing."
Like many social trends, the concept of funemployment is also a product, in part, of government policy. As a result of provisions in the Obama administration's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the maximum timeframe for receiving unemployment insurance has been increased to 79 weeks, according to Patrick Joyce, spokesman for the California EDD. Previously unaffordable post-layoff health-insurance premiums have been partly subsidized through expansion of the COBRA program.
While the maximum weekly benefit of $475 (raised under Obama from the previous $450) is relatively low, from the perspective of a young, healthy worker without kids or a mortgage, this may be one of the most propitious times to be receiving unemployment-insurance payments in the nation's history. What, exactly, are the young and funemployed doing to make the most of it?
To start — and it is just a start — one might attend a VIP cocktail hour to honor renowned mid-20th-century Jewish lounge pianist Irving Fields, creator of such groundbreaking works of musical fusion as the 1959 record Bagels and Bongos. This was Mansinne's evening activity of choice on April 30, when she attended an appetizers-and-drinks prelude to a performance by the 93-year-old Fields at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, on Mission between Third and Fourth streets. ("I'm glad to be here in San Francisco," he said as he addressed the crowd. "At my age, I'm glad to be anywhere.") Jonathan Hershaff, a broad-shouldered 27-year-old with dark curly hair who was leaving his job as a researcher at Wells Fargo to pursue a Ph.D. in economics, spoke to Mansinne and a few acquaintances. He'Brew beer in hand, he talked about his days as a practitioner of Krav Maga, the no-holds-barred martial art used by the Israel Defense Forces that has gained great popularity in the U.S. (The technique now counts Jennifer Lopez among its high-profile adherents.)
"Do you still do it?" The question came from Rachel Thompson, a 24-year-old who works in marketing for Hahn Family Wines.
Hershaff shook his head. "I got into salsa dancing." He turned to Mansinne. "How are you existing? Do you get any money from blogging?"
Late in December, as she struggled to cope with life sans steady job, Mansinne had decided to begin chronicling the lifestyle and mindset of an unemployed twentysomething through her blog, Funemployment. (Its motto: "Because not everyone is lucky enough to work at a job they can't stand.") Her first entry was an apt summary of the whistling-in-the-dark quality that defines this online literary subgenre, which has seen an explosion of contributions from the Bay Area over the past six months. On Monday, Dec. 29, she explained the blog's title in her inaugural post:
"We begin with the more commonly used 'Unemployment,'" she wrote, which "conjures up images (in this gal's head, at least) of sad-looking men in fedoras and long coats waiting for their bread ration in the freezing cold. ... When put in the context, 'What does Louise do?' 'She's unemployed.' The sympathy and sadness dripping from the responder's voice is palpable. ... It's just gicky [sic] sounding for a 25-year-old."
And, no, she didn't make any money from it.
"I have, like, 15 regular readers," Mansinne said, responding to Hershaff's query. But things were looking up. "I looked up 'funemployment' on Google the other day, and I'm the second hit."
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