"This nightmare economy can't last forever." Some readers feel Barbara Card Atkinson's pain -- others tell her to stop whining.

By Salon Staff

Published September 30, 2003 5:13PM (EDT)

[Read "Falling Down," by Barbara Card Atkinson.]

I found Barbara Card Atkinson's piece beautiful and heartbreaking, and it brought back many painful memories of my own.

I, too, lost my tech job and remained "underemployed" for a year and a half, subsisting on unemployment and temp jobs. I was a bit luckier than Barbara: I was single.

Finally, I had to bite the bullet, sell my apartment in Boston, and move in with my parents in the Washington, D.C., area. Shortly thereafter, I found another job in Manhattan.

It kills me to think of all of the highly talented, motivated people out there, whose lives are imploding due to short-sighted and counterproductive Bush administration policies. 9/11 and the tech bust played a major role, but no one in authority is doing anything to address the fundamental dislocations caused by these events.

All of us like Barbara need to speak out and force change on those who should be acting on our behalf.

-- Shakir Farsakh

I want to thank you so much for publishing Ms. Atkinson's brilliant and timely article. For those of us living here in Silicon Valley, one of the hardest-hit areas for un- and under-employment, she speaks articulately and from the heart. There really are millions of Americans just like herself and her husband Andrew, and I hope that things will turn around for them soon, as well as for the rest of us!

-- Martha Garcia

All I can say is that this could have been me and my family. We were hanging by our fingernails earlier this year. But I was lucky in that I kept my computer programming and sysadmin skills in Linux/open source current.

I knew all along that middle management and creative types would get axed when times got hard, so I stuck with the deepest techie skills I could. I stopped looking for full time work long ago and do contract work for my own company. It's not steady, but it's enough.

Though I am pushing 50, I am managing to compete with the 20-somethings who know the languages better and the systems more deeply. I guess life experience does count for something.

Good luck to Barbara and her family. Try to hold on to your dreams. This nightmare economy can't last forever.

-- Richard Bottoms

I know this letter is going to sound unsympathetic, but Barbara, you need to stop feeling sorry for yourself and take advantage of the myriad opportunities that do exist for college-educated professionals. The real tragedies in today's economy aren't post-tech-bubble suburbanites trying to hang on to a lifestyle that unexpectedly flamed out all too fast, but the would-be working poor with no job skills, no diplomas, and no prospects.

So you can't get high-tech jobs in expensive Boston to support your former Starbucks lifestyle? Deal with it. There are many other places in the U.S. with unemployment rates far lower than Boston's. Labor mobility is one of the key advantages we enjoy (if we choose to) in the States. Do some simple online research and target an area welcoming workers rather than shedding them. Yes, you may have to give up the arts, culture, and hipness that Boston affords, and actually rub elbows with Texans, or New Mexicans, or Iowans -- people and communities that aren't a part of your "demographic" -- but you'll probably survive the encounter.

And while its understandable you want jobs in your preferred fields, software and Web writing aren't exactly career choices with an inherent degree of stability. There are hundreds of school districts around the country desperate for degreed professionals to serve as teachers, all with alternate certification programs for college grads without a teaching certificate -- and offering medical, dental, and retirement benefits. Some districts that I know of in south Texas even offer special mortgage programs and housing allowances on top of salaries -- they are that desperate to attract new teachers!

I could go on, but you get the picture. You enjoy huge advantages over so many others. You don't have to live in poverty in Boston and sacrifice your kids' future in the hopes of recapturing the glory days of the '90s -- but that choice is yours.

There are a heck of a lot of folks out there without your educational and family advantages, and their choices are far more limited.

-- David Schlaefer

Not to sound unduly harsh, but of all the millions of people living in grinding poverty in the developed world alone, Salon seems to have a peculiar obsession with the miseries of loquacious tech-wreck victims. People having a hard time supporting their families is of course always a tragedy, but why so much focus on people who have had the benefits of comfortably-off families, tertiary education, and years of financial security?

When people take risks they live with the consequences of their decisions, and chasing a career in an IT start-up or as a Web writer is exactly the sort of thing that's liable to end in sweeping popcorn and selling motorbikes. How about reserving more of our sympathy for the food-stamp applicants who were never given the opportunity to follow their dreams?

-- Paul Barnsley

The people in this article could so easily be me and my family. I, too, am a dot-com refugee. Six years of busting my tail, to be escorted out the door when times got tough (and they did get really tough, ending in bankruptcy court). Through some quirk of fate I landed another job, for a relatively stable, old-fashioned company that makes accounting software. I have never been so grateful in my life for a paycheck and benefits. I don't care in the least that I had to take a significant pay cut, because the pay is still coming with regularity, and we can get by.

I hold on every day, paying the bills, taking my kids to daycare, living on one salary and student loans while I help my husband through nursing school. At least he'll have a job when he's done. We'll have some means of supporting ourselves when my formerly high-paying high-tech job inevitably disappears overseas to someone who will do it for a quarter of the price.

-- Name Withheld

I feel bad for Mrs. Atkinson and those in her position. But I feel worse for those people who struggled through poverty during the so-called boom of the 1990s, which in my experience was vastly overrated unless you were a computer geek.

It was the successful, prosperous, well-educated winners of the New Economy -- people like the Atkinsons -- who stood by and let the supposedly liberal Clinton administration dismantle the last of the New Deal. I guess it's fine to kick people off welfare when you know you yourself won't ever need it. But caveat emptor, my friend.

Atkinson is about to learn a hard lesson about unrestrained, unpadded capitalism: When it runs out of poor people to brutalize, it turns on the middle class. And if everyone spends a good long time eating food stamps and humble pie, hopefully they'll remember it the next time someone proposes to kick those lazy, shiftless poor people out of the lifeboat.

-- Tim Moerman

I have news for Barbara Card Atkinson and her husband. They are not "underemployed" at all. During the bubble of the '90s they were in fact overemployed, "a situation in which a worker is employed, in terms of compensation, beyond their level of skill and experience."

-- Garren Bagley

I read Ms. Atkinson's article with a combination of empathy and frustration. Empathy because I and my family, too, have been through the unemployment/underemployment ringer and frustration because the underlying causes for our situations are not being addressed.

My name may be familiar to Salon readers because I was one of three former high-flyers featured in the April 13, 2003, New York Times Magazine article, "Commute to Nowhere," by Jonathan Mahler. My story is remarkably similar to the Atkinsons' story and, I suspect, to a good number of the 9 million unemployed and uncounted underemployed. My family has also decimated the college funds and investments, and if not for my recent employment (after over two years) and mortgage refinancing, we too would have needed to sell our house. Our struggles, while lessened, are far from over, however, since my income is barely half of what I used to earn, which means that replenishing the lost investments will be difficult if not impossible.

My frustration stems from the apparent apathy (even enmity) of the Bush administration toward people in our position, and the current legal, but immoral, trends of rewarding the top executives of companies with lavish, obscene amounts of money while forcing others to cut back. The president calls on everyone to make sacrifices, but the only ones making any sacrifices are those of us without the vast wealth to influence his decisions. The rich get much richer while needed social programs and education are forced to cut back.

What is needed is a grass-roots effort to take back control of the political and economic power into the hands of the majority of the people, and for that reason I have for the first time in my life become active politically. I feel that is my obligation to work toward making the future of our country for my children one of a society that treats its members fairly and compassionately rather than cruelly and contemptuously.

-- Lou Casagrande

I am almost too speechless with sadness to say more than a heartfelt thank you to Ms. Atkinson for her painfully authentic and sharply written story. Suffice it to say, as another "underemployed" former Web writer who is very, very tired of this economy's "new normal," I can relate.

-- Sharon Agasi

I have two graduate degrees, one of them a law degree. The best job I could find three years ago as my former company tanked was doing computer work. Now I make as much money with a computer certificate that took 26 weeks to obtain, as I did when I was employed full time in a job in my "field." I hate this job but I do it because the pay is acceptable, and I need the healthcare benefits. I am also grateful that I have a steady job, and I've survived the six rounds of layoffs that terminated 60 percent of the workforce in the IT department of my company. I have never thought that any job was "beneath" me. Being bitten in the ass by the economy, or voodoo economics, or the lies graduate school recruiters tell us, really sucks. For some of us, though, perhaps it's a little bit more bearable because the pedestal we placed ourselves upon wasn't quite so high in the first place. Be grateful for your health, and the health of your children. Be grateful for your family that is offering to take you in. Be grateful for those who know your "open secret" and give you those tips about the clothing and food banks. Be grateful for the free movies that working at a movie theater can get you.

-- Kelly Kinney

When so many are suffering right now I find it hard to get sympathetic about the plight of Ms. Atkinson and her family. To me it just sounds like "I used to be a big-money professional and now nobody likes me" whining. Get over it. Even before 9/11 I was "underemployed" and renting out my mother's basement (after having been unable to pay for an apartment in New York alone when my roommate left). Since 9/11 I have had my own share of troubles, as have numerous others. On what basis is the Salon editorial staff deciding whose story to cover? Why are you deciding that it is necessary to cover specific stories at all? I am especially ticked off by these "I used to be a professional" stories. It sounds like these people are just getting a dose of real life. Be grateful for your great educations. When the economic downturn is over, you are going to have no trouble finding a better position for yourself. There are many people who cannot say the same.

-- P. Malino

Salon Staff

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