For the 'funemployed,' unemployment is welcome
These jobless folks, usually singles in their 20s and 30s, find that life without work agrees with them. Instead of punching the clock, they're hitting the beach.
Michael Van Gorkom practices his swing at the driving range in Westchester. Other funemployed travel on the cheap for weeks, head back to school or volunteer. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times / May 21, 2009)
Week one: "I thought, 'OK . . . I need to send out resumes, send some e-mails, need to do networking."
Week two: "A little less."
Every week since: "I'm going to go to the beach and enjoy some margaritas."
What most people would call unemployment, Van Gorkom embraced as "funemployment."
While millions of Americans struggle to find work as they face foreclosures and bankruptcy, others have found a silver lining in the economic meltdown. These happily jobless tend to be single and in their 20s and 30s. Some were laid off. Some quit voluntarily, lured by generous buyouts.
Buoyed by severance, savings, unemployment checks or their parents, the funemployed do not spend their days poring over job listings. They travel on the cheap for weeks. They head back to school or volunteer at the neighborhood soup kitchen. And at least till the bank account dries up, they're content living for today.
"I feel like I've been given a gift of time and clarity," said Aubrey Howell, 29, of Franklin, Tenn., who was laid off from her job as a tea shop manager in April. After sleeping in late and visiting family in Florida, she recently mused on Twitter: "Unemployment or funemployment?"
Never heard of funemployment? Here's Urban Dictionary's definition: "The condition of a person who takes advantage of being out of a job to have the time of their life. I spent all day Tuesday at the pool; funemployment rocks!"
It may not have entered our daily lexicon yet, but a small army of social media junkies with a sudden overabundance of time is busy Tweeting: "Funemployment road trip to Portland." "Funemployment is great for catching up on reading!" "Averaging 3 rounds of golf a week plus hockey and bball. who needs work?"
As frivolous as it sounds, funemployment is a statement about American society. Experts say it's both a reflection of the country's cultural narcissism -- and attitudes of entitlement and self-centeredness -- and a backlash against corporate America and its "Dilbert"-like work environment.
"Recession gives people permission to be unemployed," said David Logan, a professor at USC's Marshall School of Business. "Why not make use of the time and go do something fun?"
Jean Twenge, co-author of "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement," said in some cases, many employees had lost balance between work and life, with too many late nights and weekends spent at the office. When they stop working, they realize how much they had given up.
Nina Flores, 28, quit her job as a jury consultant in Costa Mesa on Feb. 1 and has no regrets.
"You figure out how much . . . you miss when maybe you're tied to your BlackBerry all the time or, in my case, traveling for work all the time," she said. "I can't imagine doing that again and sacrificing everything I want to do for me. . . . I think it is a new way of thinking."
For many younger people, Twenge said, work is less central to their lives. These days, more people than in the 1970s are saying they want jobs with a lot of vacation time, according to preliminary data from Twenge's generational surveys. Younger employees today also are less willing to work overtime. And, when asked if they would quit their jobs if they had money, more are answering "yes," though the majority still say they would continue working.
"It really suggests there has been that generational shift that work is not the be all and end all," said Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State.
Flores said she finds herself looking into jobs she would have never considered before, even if it means taking a big pay cut. What's more important, she said, is flexibility, lots of vacation time and something that doesn't have "that 9-to-5" feeling.
Amanda Rounsaville, 34, of Los Angeles quit her job as a program officer at the California Endowment in late March. A self-described workaholic who rarely called in sick or used vacation days, Rounsaville found a certain peace last month during her three-week trek through northern Mongolia with two friends, sleeping in $3-a-night, tent-like gers.
"I literally found myself smiling uncontrollably at being that far away from everything," Rounsaville said.
Enjoying the solitude, she found herself contemplating: "Do we work to live or do we live to work? Do I have life goals that are not work goals?"
Both Flores and Rounsaville discovered that they like themselves better when they're not consumed by their jobs.
"This is the best version of me," Flores said, adding that she feels "completely healthy," relaxed and focused.
Rounsaville agreed: "The rat race puts blinders on you and makes time fly, and then the next thing you know, you've missed the chance to be your more exciting self, or to push yourself in a gutsier direction."
For some in older generations, watching their children embrace an escape from responsibility is difficult. So while a young unemployed person might be saying, "This is awesome. I'm having a really good time," their parents are probably asking, "Haven't you gotten a job yet?" Twenge said.
Flores' decision to quit her job was initially met by concern and worry by her parents and some friends, but she thinks it's partly because they simply can't relate. By the time her parents' generation reached their late 20s and early 30s, most were married with children.
Van Gorkom's father had a similar response. Since being laid off as Yahoo Music's director of user experience design, Van Gorkom said he has purchased a laptop and started shopping for a new couch, "which my dad doesn't understand." As he spends money, his father is nervously asking Van Gorkom whether he needs any money.
USC's Logan isn't convinced funemployment is unique to this generation. The notion of slackers -- or whatever label is in vogue -- has been around for decades. What's different, he said, is the new social media that allows the unemployed to find each other and make plans through Facebook and Twitter.
Andy Deemer, one of Rounsaville's traveling companions, points out that they went to Mongolia with "someone two people removed from me that I had only met once two years ago at a cocktail party." The 36-year-old New Yorker and college pal of Rounsaville's, said they connected with that third travel mate through Facebook and word of mouth.
The daily lives of the unemployed have never been more public. They can post online photos of globe-trotting vacations, blog about their long lunches and broadcast via Twitter the day's weighty choices, as @james6378 did last week when deciding between Lucky Charms and Frosted Flakes cereals.
By thumbing their collective noses at employment, they also are sending a message to corporate America, Logan said.
"People are saying screw it and they're leaving companies," Logan said. "We need to figure out how to make companies work better for everybody. Until that happens . . . early retirements and furloughs are going to continue. People are going to opt out of the system."
Deemer, an independent filmmaker who also worked at CNET and about.com, said he actually enjoyed corporate America, up until November when the Internet start-up he was working for failed to get financing. After it tanked, he sold his New York apartment, put his belongings in storage, turned his parents' Beijing home into base camp, and embarked on a spiritual quest to find various mystics and shamans around Asia.
"I'm a little worried," he said of his future financial stability. "There's a nagging sense of fear that does gnaw at me when I consider it."
But Deemer has taken big risks before in the name of fulfilling a dream. He quit his CNET job to make the low-budget cult movie "Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead," which still makes him "smile big." He expects no less from his Asian adventure.
With his friends in tow, Deemer has already managed to visit a fortuneteller in Myanmar and a tarot card reader in Thailand, and to spend a few days with Saffron Revolution monks near the Thailand-Myanmar border. In Mongolia, he searched 10 days for a reindeer-herding shaman, finally tracking her down on his last day.
She wore tight jeans, a glittery purple sweater and a rhinestone headband. She typed on a laptop. He found her both mystical and authentic, though when he returned from his Trans-Siberian adventure to Beijing, he felt unchanged.
But since he was seeking answers, the Mongolian shaman had one for him. On a Post-it, she wrote his fortune in Cyrillic. The last sentence, in a nutshell: Go back to work.