How the ax falls

By Salon Technology & Business staff

Published January 29, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

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At the wizened age of 44, my generation and I have lived through several economic "downturns," which always include "restructuring." Bottom line: Management spends a gazillion bucks on various perks and fancy locations (vide, this time around: Lucent and its $42 million private golf course in New Jersey). Times get tighter and the first to get the ax are the employees, of course -- by the dozens, hundreds and tens of thousands.

Now it's younger dot-commers, whose memory of industrial and white-collar layoffs of the Reagan-Bush era may be blunted by the fact that they were in grade school 15 years ago. Quaint cultural documents like "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Roger and Me" are suddenly not just artifacts, but instructive warnings, as everyone remembers that history actually has lessons to teach.

What is not ironic is that people are losing their livelihoods when they were convinced that "It can't happen here," and seemed so certain that new-economy boom times were an endless conveyor belt to the highest reaches of the upper middle class. People being out of work -- through no fault of their own -- is never ironic. It's serious and unjust, and ultimately a source of misery.

What is ironic is the current political coverage and the re-ascendancy of the "let them eat cake" political and social message of the '80s. It is occurring just as the country relearns the cold, hard facts that leaving the welfare of the relatively weaker to "market forces" is a pathway to misery for all but the strongest. This re-education of a recently complacent generation and class to a lesson that has been repeated so many times in our American history could mean a major rejection of Republican values in the 2002 elections.

-- Louise Mowder

These ex-dot-com folk should be thankful their termination was as painless as the stories indicate.

I found a job ad in my local newspaper here in Northern Mexico, for a plant manager in a new technology start-up. I ended up trapped in a job different from the one I thought I'd been hired for. Working 300 miles from home in a tiny horrible apartment, I couldn't find another job, and by now my family depended on my pay (the grand sum of 12 bucks an hour, for advanced engineering; UPS delivery guys got 16).

INS people got increasingly suspicious of my traveling back and forth. What's this Brit doing? Supposedly a tourist, with an apartment in San Antonio, and spending 95 percent of his time in the USA? And so about that time, I asked my boss to either start the Mexico plant, or get me a green card.

On the Monday, I arrived at work to find my phone no longer worked, my e-mail shut down and a security guy waiting. I was escorted to my apartment and thrown out onto the street with all my stuff. If I hadn't had a minivan to fill up, I'd have had most of it stolen.

Dot-com? Sounds like paradise to me.

-- Clive Warner

It occurs to me that all the dot-com-layoff stories in the media are written from the perspective of the MBA and content-providing crowd. What about the programmers? It's a little strange that a large component of the tech industry (scientists and engineers -- we make the stuff after all) get no press, while the suits hog the headlines.

The article's fine, but how about one from the IT person's perspective?

-- Kevin Munroe

I've had enough of kids who come out of college with little or no experience and think they are going to make an easy cool million plus while the rest of us middle-aged "tech-challenged-losers" labor at our stupid jobs.

I hope you learn from this. You will survive and be better, hopefully, for it. Now grow up, stop the launch parties at the bar, stop going hook, line and sinker for every really cool, fast, easy money route and learn to work. It is going to be rough: little savings, no pension built up, have to get a real job, etc. You will get through this and be better in the long run. Oh, yes, one last thing: On your next job, leave the damn dog at home.

-- Joe

"Horrific"? Please. I went through a large layoff in late 1998 in the semiconductor industry. We were told on Monday that 40 percent of the staff would be laid off on Wednesday. Come Wednesday, we were unable to access voice mail, the paging system or our computers. Groups were ushered into one of two rooms. The people that were let go had one hour to pack up and leave, escorted by security. The building was closed for the rest of the day and we had two days of off-site meetings for those of us who made the cut, the first few hours of which were spent looking furtively around the room to see who was still there.

Believe me, layoffs are not within the sole realm of dot-coms. From someone who grew up in the '70s in the steel belt: Why not write about the guys who lost a way of life? Stop whining!

-- Paula Barton

When the dot-bomb economy first started its inevitable downturn, I often heard people saying it would be good for self-centered yuppie geeks to finally find out what it's like in "reality." I knew it was wishful thinking. When dot-com companies let employees go, they only lose the artists, writers and musicians working there to pay exorbitant Bay Area rent -- in other words, the drones, the pawns, the expendables. They keep the programmers and senior managers. Hearing they don't even know how to "restructure" gracefully is just icing on the bitter cake.

-- Penny Clifton

I read your article on the crush of dot-com layoffs with great interest. Having worked as a television producer before moving to the Web, the process looked depressingly familiar. A downturn in ratings leads to a ratcheting up of the rumor mill, followed by evasively worded memos from the powers that be, followed by abrupt firings. Just to add the right dehumanizing element, the wretched laid off are escorted from the premises like perps. It's gratifying to know that the dot-com start-ups, despite the free massages, Foosball tables and dog-friendly environments, are not the Arcadias they appear. They're headed by the same old cutthroat, heartless bosses -- albeit younger and with Gap wardrobes. "Plus ça change, plus la meme chose" indeed.

-- Clara Alexandra Frenk

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