The text message came on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Alexis Mansinne, a 25-year-old event planner for the chic architectural magazine Dwell, was home sick with strep throat. Rolling out of bed, she perched over her laptop computer at the kitchen table in the apartment she shares with three roommates in the Inner Sunset. The text was from her supervisor at work, asking her to call in. When she got on the phone, Alexis found herself on an unexpected conference call with three office bigwigs: her boss, the magazine president, and the director of operations. The president began explaining that there was going to be a shake-up at the office, in part because of the company's new financial commitments to a travel mag, AFAR, which would be launched in the summer of 2009.
"I'm thinking, 'They're going to lay off our coordinator. They're going to lay off our assistant,'" Mansinne recalls. It was no secret that the economy sucked. As the gears ground down and springs began popping skyward on the heretofore-mighty engine of American capitalism, no one's job, home, or 401(k) was as safe as it once had been.
That doesn't mean people see the ax drifting in their own direction. And the Petaluma native with dirty blond hair, almond-shaped green eyes, and a proper-but-not-stuffy demeanor loved her Devil-Wears-Prada dream job in magazine marketing, a career that had taken her on business trips to New York City, Los Angeles, and Denver. It had given her a sense of identity and provided psychological ballast in the uncharted waters she had plied since graduating from UC Santa Barbara.
On that fall morning six months ago, that was all about to change. Mansinne listened in disbelief as her higher-ups told her she was being let go.
"Not having eaten or slept in two days, and with golf balls in my throat, I burst into tears," she says. "I just kept saying, 'What? You're laying me off?'"
They were also asking her to come into the office, strep throat and all, to sign some legal documents acknowledging that this painful conversation had taken place. What could she do? Mansinne threw on some clothes, skipping the shower and the makeup, and made what would be her last commute.
The weeks that followed were tough. She wanted to find new work in marketing as soon as possible. She worried about money. (She actually filed for unemployment insurance on the day she was laid off.) Then something changed.
"I immediately started looking for jobs doing the same thing," she says. "And then I remembered that that wasn't even what I wanted to do before that." At UCSB, she had done a stint as a peer advisor in the communications department; now she began thinking that she might want to take some time to make the transition to a more socially redeeming career path.
Meanwhile, more than 50 weeks stretched before her, underwritten with $450 weekly unemployment checks from Uncle Sam. Why stress? "I decided that I would ... take advantage of being unemployed," Mansinne says. "And I would call it funemployment."
Funemployment. Paycation. The Unemploymentality. Every generation has an argot to describe the confusing terrain of joblessness — the dole, deadbeat dads, UB40, and so on — and the lexicon of younger casualties in the most severe American economic downturn since World War II speaks volumes.
Here's how the blog Recessionwire defines "funemployment": "A period of joblessness that you actually enjoy — maybe you get to lay out, sleep in, work out, read up. It helps to have savings, severance, or an unemployment check to help pay the bills. We're hearing this word used more and more, especially as people realize they may not be able to find a new job right away, so they might as well try to enjoy the time off."
To anybody who reads a newspaper, this may seem strange indeed. Mass media coverage of the Great Recession brought on by the precipitous decline in the housing market and subsequent crisis in financial institutions has been all doom and gloom. In April, San Francisco County's unemployment rate stood at 8.8 percent, according to the California Employment Development Department (EDD) — below the statewide average of 11 percent but still mirroring the national rate, which was 8.9 percent for the same period. But the news isn't all bad. For a certain class of worker that has long occupied a prominent place in this city — young, creative, lacking local roots, perhaps more inclined to self-absorption than not — the recession has been a boon.
To encounter the laid-off twenty- and thirtysomethings blogging about unemployed life or roaming this city's bars, museums, and parks on weekday afternoons is to witness a weirdly upbeat portrait emerge. This is no Lost Generation, but a generation that, through loss of work, claims to be finding itself — and having fun along the way. Some take to the great outdoors or pick up midweek volunteer shifts; others travel to exotic countries and spend long days relaxing among other recession casualties at the city's coffee shops. Many say that abruptly running off the iron rails of office life has forced them to reconsider the kind of career they want in the first place.
"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.