The new slackers

What goes around comes around -- laid-off dot-commers are discovering anew the joys of apathy.


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Katharine MieszkowskiJanelle Brown
February 27, 2001 1:30AM (UTC)

John Rackerby's golf game has been improving. When he's not on the green, he can be found riding his bike on Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, Calif., or meeting up with his friends to enjoy a beer and hot dog at an early-afternoon weekday barbecue. He plays a lot of guitar, and he recently spent a month in Europe just hanging out with old friends.

Three months ago, he was working 60 hours a week, spending nights and weekends slaving over HTML code as the art director of a now all-but-defunct start-up called MyEvents.com. But he was laid off in November, and hasn't been much bothered about working since. "I don't feel that optimistic about jobs, about the current work climate, so I'm not worrying about it too much." He laughs: "In fact, I'm even thinking about taking a bartending job and still having my days free, since I'm getting so used to hanging out. My golf game is getting better and I don't want to stop that."

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You could call John a slacker. But he's far from the just-out-of-college temp slave that director Richard Linklater made famous in the early 1990s in the film "Slacker." The new slackers are the recovering workaholics of the dot-com industry. It doesn't matter whether they were laid off or quit their jobs of their own volition; they are now rediscovering the joys of life beyond the monitor: the wonders of "Magnum P.I." reruns, the thrill of going dancing on school nights, the restorative luxury of spending half the day in bed.

Go into any cafe in San Francisco on a weekday or head to a bar on a Sunday night, and you'll see them in droves. As the dot-com industry collapses, they're not scrambling for their next job. Instead, they're just reveling in doing nothing.

"My excuse for not looking for another job is that my career has turned me into a zombie, and I need to fill myself up with art and experience: real life vs. bad business model," says Ann Robson, who worked as a Web designer for three failing dot-coms in the space of 13 months before losing her last job, at ComedyWorld, in January. "From my experience I feel this is all meaningless nonsense, and I think my time is better wasted when I am the one wasting it."

Robson describes herself as "basically a housewife now." She busies herself painting the kitchen, doing laundry and volunteering her Web skills to a Berkeley community radio station these days. She's also planning a six-week vacation to Mexico. "Most of us have saved money because we were in such high demand that all we did last year was work, and work for a high wage. So we can take off as much time as we want," she explains.

Everyone loved to hate the grungy, cafe-dwelling slackers of the early '90s who, midrecession, felt unmotivated and disillusioned about their job prospects when their career options looked like the mailroom or pulling lattes. When the same kids turned into stock-optioned dot-commers working 80-hour weeks, they became a new kind of cultural whipping boy, at fault for gentrification and the stock market bubble. Hate them when they don't work. Hate them when they strive and work too much. So why work?

Learning how to relax can be a full-time job in itself. "It took me four weeks to learn how to sleep in again," says 30-year-old John Shiple, the former head of user experience for Bigstep.com. Shiple has been spending his past three months of unemployment napping and catching up on friendships. "For the last two-and-a-half years I got up at 8 a.m., no matter what," he says. But now he doesn't get up until noon. "Ten hours of sleep is about right, now. I like sleeping for 10 hours," he muses.

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Similarly, Skye Ketonen, a director of marketing at LinkExchange (a firm purchased in 1998 by Microsoft), found that when she quit her job to relax she couldn't give up her to-do list. "The hardest thing about it was changing the way I think about what is a productive use of my time. For the first three months I was still making lists of things I should do, even when the things on my to-do list were 'do yoga,' 'get a backrub,' 'organize my photo album.'" But she eventually gave up the list and came to see "lollygagging" full time as a worthy pursuit in its own right -- that is, until she started working again as a consultant, for "just" 30 to 40 hours a week.

To be fair, the new slackers aren't really doing nothing. Many, like Rackerby and Robson, are pulling in the occasional freelance or contracting gig to help pay some of the bills. But even if they put in a day or two a week writing code, their attention is focused on the finer things in life -- such as going to cowboy poetry gatherings in Nevada, where Luke Knowland recently headed after quitting his job as a Web producer. For the past six years since grad school, he'd been working "like a dog" -- 60- to 90-hour weeks. But now he hasn't held a job since mid-December.

Knowland, who started working at Wired magazine's online site Hotwired in the early days of the Web, is surprised how many of his former co-workers are also living la vida lazy. He'll hit an afternoon matinee whenever he feels like it and never has a hard time finding anyone to go with him. Like so many of his generation who began working online in 1995 or 1996 and were caught up in the craziness of the "dot-com revolution," he burned out after merely half a decade. Has the acceleration of Internet time also sped up the onset of the midlife crisis?

"There's not that much that's really challenging anymore," says Knowland. "Nothing's changed that much in terms of what we've been doing for the last few years, so we're asking, What's next? Whether that's because we've all been working really hard, coupled with the fact that we all started really young, we're all entering our 30s and going, 'What the hell are we doing with our lives?'"

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When John Pike, 37, was laid off from his job as a Web programmer for ComedyWorld in mid-January, he was already planning to quit in order to spend time with his new puppy, an Australian shepherd named Bodhi. Still, the layoff came as a shock: "I still felt dejected. It's kind of like if you're going to break up with somebody and then they break up with you."

But now he finds that life with the dog has its own demands. "He wakes me up every day before sunrise. I'm waking up earlier than when I was working. It's kind of like being in the Army. I wake up with the sun every day." His puppy is so cute that he's constantly stopped in the street by strangers who admire it: "I go to the post office and it takes 45 minutes," he says.

He finds the canine life more fulfilling than any cubicle job, and has discovered that he may be able to make that lost dot-com fortune with his newfound skills. "I'm not actively looking for full-time work, and I'm even considering doing something like walking dogs, because I've met a bunch of dog walkers and they make tons of money."

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For many dot-commers, the past six years have been spent in relatively uncreative pursuits -- while it may have its challenges, writing HTML code for a pet portal is hardly the equivalent of writing a novel or a song. And their all-encompassing jobs left them little free time to pursue their more artistic interests. So with all this newfound free time, many of the unemployed are finally embarking on projects that have been lingering in their minds for years.

Knowland, for example, is in the process of writing a cookbook called "Philosophies of Cooking," which he describes as a guide for young single people who want to start entertaining but don't know how. And Craig Bicknell, who dreamed of writing music even as he was slaving away as a reporter for Wired News for years, has been working full time on an album since he quit his job in November. "It's been excellent, it's been fabulous," he says happily.

It turns out to be not that easy to shut off your drive to produce just because you aren't sitting in a cubicle every day. "I really haven't spent any time slacking because maybe I have too much of the puritanical Calvinist work ethic, and it's hard for me to not be working at something," says Bicknell. But he's almost done with his album, and he's starting to think about really taking a break. "I needed to prove to myself I could get good stuff done before I was comfortable slacking. But I'm happy with what I've been doing, so now maybe I'll feel entitled to slack more."

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Not all of the new slackers can boast an original early-'90s slacker pedigree. Many of the younger breed missed the first wave. They were sucked up into the economic hysteria of the new Internet economy right out of college, and unlike their peers who were just a few years older, they never moved to Prague to hang out in expatriate languor. Now that the balloon has popped, they are looking around and asking why they shouldn't also take the opportunity to do nothing.

For example, 30-year-old Cate Corcoran, who was the fifth employee at PeoplePC (a company that grew to 300 people in 18 months), says that "a lot of people our age were kind of floating around a lot in their early 20s and I wasn't, really. I was working." When she quit her job, she headed to Thailand for three weeks and ended up staying two months, including 10 days at a silent meditation retreat in a Buddhist monastery. "Once you get over there, you realize a bunch of things -- it's cheaper to stay there than it is to come home," she says. "For the price of a dinner in San Francisco, you can live for four days in a place like Thailand."

Travel is one thing that most dot-commers (with their standard two weeks of vacation a year) couldn't ever find the time for -- if they took vacation at all. "In two years working on the Internet, I only took a week off at Christmas," says 28-year-old Tara Torpey, who sold advertising for America Online until late January. "If I took a three-day weekend, I was on my cellphone and had my laptop. I was always wired in. Even when I went home for the holidays for a week, I was online almost every day." Since being laid off, she has already been to Hawaii, and is now planning a week in Mexico, two months in Europe and a leisurely monthlong cross-country road trip. "I have to leave my house by 11 in the morning or I'll sit there and watch CNBC all day. I'm addicted." She's also enjoying literary pursuits: "The library -- you forget how awesome the library is! They have CDs now! You can check out CDs, go home and burn them and bring them back the next day!"

Her advice for newly unemployed dot-commers? "Make friends with people in the restaurant industry. They don't have to work until night, so you have your daytime playmates. And if they're working in a bar or restaurant they will give you free food and drinks." With her severance package and her savings, she's not planning to look for a new job until August.

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But Torpey, Knowland and Shiple are the lucky ones. They are dot-commers who either voluntarily decided to slack or have enough savings from the booming days of the Net economy to support their pursuit of nothingness. But there are plenty of other unemployed Net slaves who are finding that their slacking is enforced by a dismal job market.

Twenty-seven-year-old Alisa Weinstein was laid off from her job as an editor when teen site Kibu.com shut down in October. Although she has attempted to find a new job, she discovered in November that prospects were grim, and since then has been forced to work in a coffee shop and borrow money from her parents to make ends meet. "I don't know if a lot of people are enjoying this [unemployment]. Maybe the people taking off for Europe are enjoying it, people who made $70,000 a year this whole time and had money saved away. But I didn't have money saved," she says bitterly.

"When every day is Saturday, then Saturdays aren't as exciting anymore," agrees 27-year-old music writer Jennifer Maerz, who was laid off twice by dot-coms in the past six months. "You want to get back to being a productive part of society."

Unfortunately, Maerz is finding that there aren't many opportunities for music writing in San Francisco right now. Since she doesn't want to resort to temping, she has to find new ways to make ends meet. "I'm just trying to tread water in more creative ways until something that I really want comes up." Such as smoking pot for science: She's currently being paid $250 for three days of marijuana-induced video game playing, part of a medical experiment that is examining how pot affects brainwaves.

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And life isn't so bad. "Every week since I've been laid off, I've had a new friend get laid off," says Maerz. "So I'm starting to have more people to hang out with." She's about to embark on a trip to Europe. "I think it will be cheap," she says, "because it will just be me and the other people who got laid off traveling around, and hopefully there aren't too many of us yet."

Regardless of whether the slackers are relaxing intentionally or not, almost everyone agrees that there is one valuable aspect to having all this free time. After six years of riding the Internet tidal wave, now is the time to reflect on what their goals in life really are. Just because the industry has been lucrative and open to young workers doesn't mean that it's the path many of these dot-commers necessarily want to pursue for the rest of their lives.

Because the truth is, they aren't really slackers in the traditional sense. Most will eventually get a job -- this leisurely time will last only six or 12 months before they head into a new job or a new career. Unlike the early 1990s, they can't live the lifestyle they've become accustomed to in New York or San Francisco on $10,000 a year. Even slackers like 25-year-old Asif Hassan, who was laid off by Petstore.com, spent only three months sleeping until noon and watching "The Simpsons" and "Star Trek: Voyager" before he started feeling the financial pinch of unemployment. "It's not really possible to hang out for very long," he says.

The challenge, then, is for the new slackers to figure out a way to marry the principles of nothingness and busyness in their next incarnation. The lessons of the dot-com downfall have been learned the hard way. "The problem of the last few years is that people were working too hard. They didn't go out and have a life. They were working morning, noon and night, and they weren't going out and seeing movies, spending time with boyfriends, etc.," says John Young, who recently quit his job as chief creative officer at Poppe Tyson and is about to head off for a vacation in the South Pacific. "Those are the important things in life, the things that inspire you. If you just sit at a cube all day, your life will be dull. There's no point to sprinting so hard."

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Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Katharine Mieszkowski

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Janelle Brown

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