A Dot Calm Falls Over The Office

Burned-out workers are bucked up by the slowdown

With the slowdown in the New Economy, you might think the workforce would be filled with dread over trimmed-down budgets or coming layoffs. But for many, there's an interim phase--perhaps shortlived--that's eliciting not fear-filled cries so much as a collective sigh.

That's because many professionals, from venture capitalists on Silicon Valley's Sand Hill Road to headhunters in New York to lawyers in the Midwest, are taking secret pleasure in the Internet boom's bust. True, there's nothing fun about shriveled portfolios and gloomy talk from George W. Bush of a looming recession. But many of those who were supporting the economy's sizzling pace were doing so by working the equivalent of three jobs, putting up with clients barking that they want it now, and missing out on vacations, family dinners, even sex lives. They're exhausted--and so far, anyway, they're not missing their former workaholic ways. "People are happier and in better moods than they were six months ago," says Mark Tanoury, chairman of the business department at Silicon Valley law firm Cooley Godward.

Another big relief: the evaporation of Internet envy. Tanoury says lawyers who stayed at the firm over the past two years often had to fend off doubts--and spousal pressure--that they might have blown their chances for easy millions at a dot-com. "Now they are able to say, `Aren't you happy I'm not over there with a puny salary and zero stock options?"' says Tanoury, who adds that the firm has already seen its 25% turnover settle down to the more typical 10%.

No one would dispute that the pace was grueling: Americans were working a month more per year than they did a decade ago and clocking more hours than any other workforce in the world. The situation reached absurd heights at some companies: Ernst & Young had to set out a policy discouraging employees from checking voice and e-mail on weekends. At Hewlett- Packard, the 24/7 ethos had gained such sway that some employees were required to set goals not just for advancing their careers but also for leisure.

Even some headhunters are lapping up the lull. "I can tell you, I'm absolutely enjoying that I don't have someone dialing me every two days to hurry up," says Susan K. Bishop, president of New York City-based executive search firm Bishop Partners Ltd., which specializes in new and traditional media hires. What's more, rather than facing an anxious clientele, she's finding that the economic slowdown is making freshly laid-off workers more discriminating about their next opportunity, not less. "They are all happy not to be working 70 hours a week."

Bishop isn't hiding her glee with the slow rhythm of business, but others are keeping such sentiments under wraps. After all, there's something almost heretical about delighting in a downturn. And it can always get worse. Indeed, the slowing economy is expected to spike the level of new layoff announcements this winter and spring. Surprisingly, layoffs in the first three quarters of 1999--the last hurrah of irrational exuberance--were 11% higher than the first three quarters of 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But what remains to be seen is if this year's firings will outpace those of last year.

STEADY DEMAND. To be sure, for those vulnerable to pink slips, like the workers who could soon be laid off from Motorola, General Motors, and NBC, the "aahhh" effect is no doubt wearing off quickly. Overall, though, thanks in part to demographics and new job creation, the labor market for skilled workers is expected to remain tight for the next 20 years, according to Helen Handfield-Jones, a senior practice consultant at McKinsey & Co.: "For companies to think the war for talent is over is just not right." By 2008, demand for skilled workers, she notes, will have grown 27% since 1988, while the growth in skilled jobs will have outstripped supply by almost double that rate. This is one reason why unemployment is still hovering at 30-year lows and why castoffs are getting quickly reabsorbed into new jobs.

And, let's face it, even for those who aren't given to schadenfreude, the greatest wealth-creation boom in history--in which few buyers of multimillion-dollar homes in Silicon Valley ever bothered with a mortgage--did get a little annoying, especially for the majority left on the sidelines of nouveau riches. When New Economy tycoons started saying things like "wheels up at 7" when talking about the ETDs of their Gulfstreams, many felt things had gotten out of hand.

The way in which so many became so obscenely wealthy so fast didn't just infect the world of work but also real estate, competition for schools, even traffic. "We created a monster class," says Richard M. Avalos, director of technical staffing for Sunnyvale (Calif.)-based Web-hosting company GlobalCenter. He's referring to the bane of many a recruiter: the spoiled high-school dropouts who never had a whiff of recession and demanded--and got--raises and promotions after three months on the job. Also a welcome change for headhunters and co-workers: the humbling of the previously swollen-ego, under-30 types who felt they deserved to be CEOs even though they were missing crucial skills. "A year ago there was a shortage of average talent, even poor talent," says Jeff Christian, chairman and CEO of headhunting firm Christian & Timbers. "Now [the search] is about talent that's actually talented."

The burned-out ranks are also grateful, at least for now, for the return of some old-fashioned business fundamentals, which are purging the posers and making it easier to analyze which companies are solid. Take Stewart Alsop, a general partner at venture-capital firm New Enterprise Associates, headquartered on Silicon Valley's Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park. "I'm more confident now than I was when my own portfolio was up 70%," says Alsop, whose public companies include TiVo, Netcentives, and Egreetings. "This is a much better time to be a venture capitalist and an entrepreneur. Now I understand how to measure myself, whereas six months ago, nobody could."

Maybe--at least for the moment--not all things about a slowing economy are bad. Then again, no one would be feeling this way if things hadn't been so good.

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