Getting Their Dotcom-Uppance

Under 35s Lead Growth in Unemployment

Kelso Jacks was feeling pretty good about life at the end of January. She and her fiancé had just moved in together, sharing rent on a one-bedroom apartment on Allen Street in the Lower East Side. She had been working for the music industry trade magazine CMJ for more than three years, and the company had recently moved their offices from Long Island to manhattan. She was planning to get married in August.

And then came the layoffs. CMJ dumped more than 20 employees during the first week of February, and she was among them.

"I was really impressed with myself," recalls Jacks, 29. "I didn't have an emotional response during the firing. But when I got back to my desk and everyone was just looking at me, I totally broke down. I was like, 'fuck seniority and fuck loyalty!' I even blamed my parents for always having the same job for 40 years, like if they hadn't, I might have moved on when there were opportunities."

Kelso Jacks, down and out in Silicon Alley
photo: Jay Muhlin
Kelso Jacks, down and out in Silicon Alley

It's no secret that nowadays, opportunities—particularly with news and content sites—can be tough to come by. CMJ's layoffs came in large part because the stock of its parent company, new media management firm Rare Medium, dropped from 44 in March of last year to 1.9 in December, part of a greater trend of investors shying from Internet ventures. Falling click-through rates on banner ads have further impugned the already sketchy business models of many content sites. Jacks, after making a few calls to friends, realized a job wasn't immediately forthcoming and filed for unemployment.

The dotcom whippings of the last seven or eight months have been well documented. It's estimated that 41,000 jobs nationwide were slashed from the sector last year, upwards of 3000 of them in New York City. And while it's difficult to pinpoint professional backgrounds, the New York City Department of Labor reports that the number of people receiving unemployment insurance in the last quarter of 2000 had risen by 8 percent from the same quarter the year before. More significantly, only one demographic on the dole has shown significant growth: people, like Jacks, aged 34 and under.


"I was making $48,000 a year, doing really fun stuff. Now I'm taking cash advances on credit cards and dipping into savings accounts that should be off-limits."


Filing for unemployment today has become a relatively painless process, compared to the days of waiting in long lines of depressed, out-of-work people; now a would-be recipient files over the phone. "It was the first thing I did," says Roderick Beltran, 26, who was a senior editor at Ugo.com, a Web site dedicated to video games and music, until his job was cut in December. "It's not a lot of money—like $340 a week after taxes."

Beltran says that amount can't solve the fiscal equation of living in New York City. "I was making $48,000 a year, doing really fun stuff," he says. "I had a month's severance and vacation pay. So for December and January, I lived the way I was accustomed to. Now I'm taking cash advances on credit cards and dipping into savings accounts that should be off-limits. This month I asked my mom to pay my cell phone bill. If I don't get a job by, like, the end of March, I might move back to Boston and start over. I just want to go somewhere where I have a stable base and can work without having to pay rent and deal with all the temptations of New York."

Jacks is trying to freelance but has filed for unemployment insurance as well: "It sucks. The person who told me to file said it would be the best three months of my life—I'd get paid for not working. But it doesn't feel that way. I've worked since I was 12! I'm supposed to be saving money to get married. The thing that sucks most is that you tell your friends and family, and they make excuses for you. They're like 'Well, you have been paying into it.' I'm like 'Are you gonna give me $400 a week?' "

Not everyone is able to get benefits easily. Will Leitch, 25, was the paid managing editor at Ironminds.com during the brief months last year when that site was being funded by Novix Media. Now he still does the work—for free. Leitch had quite a run for his relatively brief salaried tenure; he and fellow Novix writer Eric Gillin traveled cross-country during the political campaigns of 2000, filing daily work for IssuePaper.com, a now defunct political site. The trip, entirely financed by Novix, reached its apex when the two writers delivered $500 worth of explosives to Hunter S. Thompson, at which time the addled antihero bestowed a brief interview, Leitch says, as well as some "quality shit" hashish.

Up in smoke would be the best way to describe Leitch's career last September, when he was laid off. Leitch, who, like many new media workers was originally drawn to Manhattan by the promise of plentiful writing jobs, had lived in two other states prior to moving into his West Village apartment. This made it logistically challenging to file for unemployment benefits. "I kept calling Illinois, where I'm from," explains Leitch. "They kept saying they were checking into it. Finally I gave up."

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