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Ten Years Ago, Almost Everyone in Media Got Fired
Most survived. A few prospered. But those of us who went through it will never again feel truly safe at work.
I blithely ignored the first sign of trouble — a rare early morning phone call from a colleague as I walked to the subway. Had I checked my bank account? she asked. It seems the direct deposits hadn’t shown up, and the rest of the staff was freaking out. The previous night had been a late one, and frankly, I didn’t feel so hot. “Oh, come on. It’s not even 10 a.m.,” I told her wearily. “You guys need to chill out. I’m sure it’s fine.”
By this point, I’d been reassuring people for so long — patiently explaining to various staffers that what appeared from certain angles to be a falling sky was actually just an optical illusion — that I had myself convinced, too. But a few minutes later, after discovering my monthly subway pass had expired, I found myself hesitating to replace it. Was this my last commute?
I stared at the vending machine. The line of straphangers behind me was getting testy. For two years, I’d put everything I had into this job. It was a startup. Chaos and upheaval were part of the gig. I couldn’t go wobbly now.
I selected the monthly pass and handed the MTA my $81. When I stepped out of the subway, my cell was buzzing again. This time it was the boss. “Get over here as soon as you can,” he was saying. And then, gravely: “We’re in the conference room.”
My counterintuitive but extremely effective hangover remedy goes like this: Wake up early. Go to the gym. Consume three glasses of water, four Aleve, and two slices of pizza. Given the urgency in the boss’s voice, though, I skipped the pizza. Fifteen minutes later, when my company was effectively dissolved and my life upended for the foreseeable future, it was clear that was the wrong move.
To an uncanny degree, nearly everyone who’s been laid off tells essentially the same story of how it went down. That’s because your company already has a plan for this eventuality; a file just waiting to be pulled, containing a series of legally vetted steps. Whatever the enterprise’s personality or mission, the implacable logic of the human resources department — cold-bloodedly efficient, and tactically sweetened with doses of “understanding” — wins the day.
That morning, with the entire staff crowded into the conference room, someone naively asked the HR consultant, a hired gun, if we could at least have the weekend to pull our things together. After a pause, he replied simply, “I’m sorry. We’ve got to move to closure.” And then he offered up a curious anecdote. It seems that when his mother died, not long ago, his siblings started squabbling over her house and belongings before her body had even cooled. After the funeral, he recalled, in a theatrical, lip-biting whisper, he was sitting in his mother’s living room when he realized that what really made the place special… was her. “And I guess that’s really my message to you folks, is that, you know, what made this place special was all of you.”
What I thought at the time, head throbbing, a sort of vibrating rage creeping up my spine, was this: “So glad your mom’s death could at least be put to practical use on behalf of our evil billionaire owner.”
Later, I came to see his point. No need to prolong the agony. Don’t be maudlin. Let go. Besides, maybe his mom really did pass.
I walked back to my desk — wait, not my desk anymore… their desk — in a daze. Everything looked the same, but not really. The inbox full of work that would now wait forever, the whiteboard covered with ideas, instantly obsolete. There were crumbs everywhere. Was it always this disgusting? I grabbed a box and a roll of tape and started packing.
The small magazine company I toiled for will remain nameless, but it made no difference where you worked. We were all fucked. Either you’d been canned, or you were doing a fingertip hang over a lake of hellfire. In a strange way, it may actually have been worse to be gainfully employed, because while the rest of us actually knew where we stood, the working stiffs quickly became BFFs with fear itself. Remember the swimmer in Jaws who suddenly notices that curious cloud of crimson blossoming around her legs? That’s what they were, essentially: chum. Profits were down. Rumors were flying. Why’s the boss always got his damn door closed? They’d sweat through their shirt every Friday, though in that climate, the axe could just as easily swing on a Tuesday. (Nothing like a good personnel bloodbath to soothe investors.)
If you were still working, you were either working your ass off to cover for laid-off compatriots — doing a death march each morning past their sad, denuded cubicles — or entering a grim holding pattern and getting nothing of value accomplished whatsoever. Either way, the thrill was gone. It was no longer about changing the world or closing the deal or beating the living shit out of the guy across the hall, but about playing possum till the crackle of gunfire quieted, so maybe, with any luck, they could do it again tomorrow.
So, what does it feel like, getting shit-canned? To be honest, it was worse than I’d expected — the sudden realization that things are happening to you. You give up your gun, your badge, and you’re rendered powerless in an instant. After the anger subsided, all the other clichés kicked in one by one, the same ones, I’d guess, that accompany a bad medical prognosis: numbness, disbelief, shock. That feeling of putting one foot in front of the other and moving through space without really being there.
Eventually, I settled on denial. Screw this: Let’s go out with a bang! We’d been planning a promotional party anyway, so we turned it into a wake. The event went down a week later, and it was a damn good time, with an appropriately decadent, sex-in-a-war-zone vibe. I spent the evening feverishly enlisting my former co-workers in a new business scheme. Who needed a printing press, offices, billionaire backers? We’d make our own damn magazine! Slap it up online! Be our own bosses! Before the night was over, I had four or five partners, and we were tossing around URLs. A week later, I floated the idea with a web guru–type I know. He thought the plan sounded promising, and predicted it would almost definitely make money. Just not for two to three years.
Things sort of petered out after that. Mania gave way to dread, button-downs to sweatshirts — or really, one sweatshirt I wore many days in a row. Before I knew it, I was seriously considering public relations, advertising, medical writing. What is medical writing? Sure, my wife worked, but I was the one with insurance, the one with the primary responsibility for keeping us afloat. (We had recently had our third kid, just to make things interesting.) I’d actually come to like that responsibility. I had it under control. But now? Maybe not.
My wife and I began to fight. There were the usual tense discussions over expenses. Should we give up the land line? The cable TV? The car? The family vacation? (No, no, no and yes.)
Since my company had seemed like something of a long shot from the beginning, naturally I’d always had a plan B. But within weeks, it became clear that the entire industry was in trouble. No, make that the whole economy. Dominoes were falling everywhere. Suddenly, I had no real sense of where I stood in my chosen field. On one particularly grim evening, I found myself on one of those massive job search websites, firing off a resumé for a job several notches below what I’d been doing. An hour later, I received a quizzical reply from a perfect stranger fairly scolding me for my lack of ambition. On the other hand, there was my uneasy exchange with a former colleague. A year before, she’d been an ambitious assistant, fresh out of college. Now, she was an editor at a new publication, calling to offer me a little work, albeit at about a tenth of my usual rate. Wait, this was plan B? I almost took her up on it.
“So… ” My parents are on the phone, trying their best to sound casual. “How’s it going?”
Ah, the dreaded question. For weeks, I’d mustered the energy to sound upbeat every time they’ve posed it, because that’s all they’re asking for, right? A bit of can-do blather about this lead and that prospect. But this time, I just can’t pull it off. Seems I’ve run out of string. Now that a handful of those exciting opportunities have quietly evaporated, my Pollyanna shtick is getting old. And despite my being well past the age when I should be seeking parental approval, I felt a twinge of shame: Steve and Sheila’s little prince might actually let them down this time. Have you felt your parents’ pity recently? It’s not a great feeling.
“I love you guys and I know you mean well,” I hear myself telling them, with a bit more intensity than I’m aiming for. “But if you really want to help, you have got. To stop. Asking me how it’s going.”
Dead air. “Sorry,” I add. “It’s going. What can I say?”
“Well, you know we’re here for you.”
Yes, I know. But aside from keeping my old bedroom free, they couldn’t really do much to help. Not once they tallied up their own losses…
The real answer to how it was going? I had no idea. I’m a pretty confident person, generally speaking. After around 15 years — hell, that long? — in my field, I thought I had the game pretty well figured out. I knew all the rules, the players and most every knot and divot on the field. Then again, the ancient Romans were fond of a little sport they called harpastum, and you just know that back in the fifth century, some schmuck knew that game inside out, too. A fat lot of good it did when the whole empire basically crumbled around him.
In fact, if there’s one key lesson that’s emerged so far from this economic cataclysm — correction? pickle? — it’s that nobody actually has the slightest clue what’s going on, and maybe we never did. Whatever basis we had for evaluating our place in the world no longer applied. Remember when you could check out your 401(k) online and feel that little surge of contentment? Or when you could bring in a piece of framed art, you know, to personalize your cubicle, without imagining yourself lugging it home a month later after goodbye shots with your erstwhile office mates? Or when you could spend the better part of a day watching amusing YouTube clips and still somehow feel like you’d earned your paycheck instead of sliding toward professional oblivion? Good times.
To be honest, my job was always too good to be true. The work was fun, and I took home a competitive salary. My colleagues were brilliant and fired up, and the atmosphere was collegial, with a minimum of the usual backstabbing and political infighting. We had free coffee made from those individual brew-cups, in eight varieties. I got to fly out to LA and Barcelona, all expenses paid. Ridiculous and occasionally valuable swag appeared unbidden on my desk (dude, Xbox 360).
But more than that, when I told people what I did, they took me seriously. The job made me legit. At the exclusive but homey nightclub I began frequenting, ushered in past the waiting rabble, beautiful women would grow unexpectedly attentive when they learned where I worked. You could actually see whatever first impression they’d gleaned from my lack of height, my lack of fashion sense, my lack of grooming, giving way to something more nuanced and receptive, eyes widening, wheels turning: Oh wow, and here I thought you were just some random loser! Maybe they wanted to write for the magazine, or talk up their PR clients, but it wasn’t hard to persuade myself that the mojo was mine alone, which, in retrospect, is precisely what I’d been working so hard for in the first place. Maybe that’s what we all work for.
I went back to that bar just once in the month after I was fired. It wasn’t the same. For one thing, substituting a $3 club soda for every other $12 vodka tonic kind of killed the buzz, as did the knowledge that I’d be concluding the evening with an hour-long subway odyssey rather than expensing a cab.
But more than that, it had become evident that I actually was some random loser and had simply lost sight of the fact. In a hyper-ambitious, supposedly meritocratic culture, my sleek Maybach of a career had given way overnight to the Ford Festiva of unemployment insurance, of hustling up freelance gigs, of scraping together a mortgage payment by writing about getting the sack.
Of course, this dynamic had been true for decades, particularly for men. You derive most of your stature, your identity, from your work — from lashing yourself to an institution, a brand, a set of perks. My obsolete business cards (of which I’d managed to use maybe 50 out of a batch of 1000) sort of said it all; little card stock tokens of achievement and belonging suddenly recast as embossed artifacts of failure. After finding out I’d lost my job, I finally went and got my pizza. Then, I spent the afternoon hurriedly pitching my personal effects into cardboard boxes. Those business cards stopped me in my tracks. An odd image flashed in my mind of the headstones at Arlington, all those little rectangles, each one a reminder of sacrifice and loss.
Melodramatic, I know. But those endless rows of markers are actually not a bad reminder of a sorely forgotten — and oddly consoling — notion, one that seemed especially relevant to that moment and will eventually be so again: Like it or not, history sweeps us all along. Each of us is responsible for his own fate, until he isn’t. The idea that we can invent ourselves, create our own futures through force of will, ambition, hunger — it’s an illusion, really, another by-product of our once-roaring economy. Take the wide-angle view, as you can’t help but do these days, and it’s clear that we all rise, and plummet, together. Do our professional achievements really belong to us at all? Or our failures? It’s circumstance, for the most part, that makes us or breaks us, that opens doors of opportunity and slams them shut.
I pinched a small stack of the cards for old times’ sake and tossed the rest.