Looking Busy for a Living

With jobs disappearing faster than the polar ice cap, those who find themselves out of work must pit their wits against those who still cling to their paychecks.

01.07.09 6:22 AM ET

What was the easily recognizable and newly unemployed magazine writer going to do? Like so many others in the media industry, he had recently been laid off from his high profile job, and was now collecting unemployment. While that marked a humiliating first, at least no one caught him cashing his $405 weekly checks.

But now he was being summoned by the unemployment folks for a mandatory appearance at their offices—and when he looked at the address he saw, with horror, that it was in the same Varick Street office building as New York Magazine!

Suddenly, we've gone from being affluent baby boomers to cash-strapped baby boomerangers—returning to our humble beginnings.

The journalist was terrified.  He knew loads of writers and editors at the glossy weekly; only a few days earlier he'd lunched with a top New York editor and discussed with him the possibility of an assignment.   He'd acted confident and busy at that lunch, hoping to convey that a piece for New York might mean a burden on his extremely busy schedule.  "I've already lined up some magazine assignments," he'd told the editor, "plus I'm planning a documentary, and writing a TV pilot." Now he worried: what if the they ran into each other in the lobby on his way upstairs to the unemployment bureau?  The two offices even shared an elevator bank!

So the writer did what any self-respecting, out-of-work journalist should: he wore a black ski cap and dark sunglasses as he entered and exited, and looked downward when Adam Moss got on the elevator and looked his way, suspiciously.

We're becoming a city in which the number of unemployed professionals may one day exceed the ranks of those with a job. And that shift has changed the way those two groups behave and interact with each other.

I've noticed a fascinating phenomenon among the dozens of professionals I know who've been laid off, downsized or fired in recent months: their new job is to look busy, for the sake of their employed friends and prospective employers. They're always running to meetings, constantly working on proposals, and forever developing new projects.

They're online 24 hours a day, updating their Facebook profiles and IM-ing each other and Twittering away about their plans. They're devoting every ounce of energy to figuring out what's next as they race around the city having lunch, darting into Apple stores or standing on street corners with their iPhones, checking their dwindling supply of emails.

I call it Social Notworking. It's a trend that pits the unemployed—the outofworkaholics who won't stop until they get back in the game—against their former colleagues, often younger, who still have their jobs. It's Generation Y versus the "Why Me?" Generation, and it's going to get worse as New York's once-vibrant, once-fully employed professional world keeps shrinking.

"Work work work work work work work," was the Facebook update one recent afternoon of an advertising copywriter who lost his last remaining freelance gig a couple of weeks ago. He knows we know, but he's telling us how busy he is and defying us to contradict him. A fortysomething laid-off Wall Street analyst, who now writes a blog to keep himself busy, curtly informed his curious Facebook friends the other morning that “Bruce is in all-day meetings, 10-6, today and tomorrow."

In his Monday media column in the New York Times, David Carr recently complained: "I have a pal who is persistently IM-ing me because he is at loose ends after being laid off, and my social networks are rife with digital fretting and various versions of, 'Did you hear about so-and-so?' Why, yes I did. Over and over." The war has begun, between the Breadwinners and the Sore Losers.

Major emotional shifts are taking place among those of us who never before went without a job. Suddenly, we've gone from being affluent baby boomers to cash-strapped baby boomerangers—returning to our humble beginnings, watching our pennies, looking for a new path to employment and success. Our past triumphs only make it harder, as we see some of our peers continue to thrive.

We're Social Notworkers because we need to maintain the self-respect that comes from keeping busy and from maintaining the appearance of success and happiness—to those who actually are successful and happy. Social Notworking helps us cope with the new, nightmarish realities of life on the other side.

“The beauty of email and cell phones is that no one knows exactly where I am,” says an unemployed website developer who makes sure she has a lunch date every single day, in TriBeCa restaurants where she’ll be seen by her still-working colleagues. “I don’t respond to any email in less than 12 hours—otherwise people will think I’m, like, hovering over my computer in my living room!”

Which she is—but that’s a fact she keeps to herself. There’s no need for prospective employers or former colleagues to think she’s sitting at home in her pajamas, eating pistachio nuts for lunch. She prefers to tell them she’s calling from a Midtown meeting, or from the back of a cab on the way to an appointment. The only problem, she says, comes when her dog barks during a business call.

David Blum, former editor-in-chief of The Village Voice and of The New York Press, teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. In 1992 he published Flash In The Pan: The Life and Death of an American Restaurant. Tick...Tick...Tick...: The Long Life & Turbulent Times of 60 Minutes followed in 2004.