Laid Off and Loving It?

The Globe’s facile recessionary trend spotting

The Boston Globe today fronts an article that demonstrates the flaws of imposing a facile story idea on a complicated situation. Under the headline, “For now, laid off and loving it,” Jenn Abelson interviews some recently unemployed people who are finding more time to go to museums and de-stress/decompress. And while everyone loves a silver lining (yes, spending time with family is a good thing), the article’s artificial constraints are more cloying and problematic. Here’s an anecdotal snippet about software designer David Adler, who recently got laid off:

It was shocking. And scary.

Until it wasn’t. Adler has quickly learned to appreciate some aspects of his unexpected unemployment.

The 42-year-old spends his days doting on his 6-month-old daughter, visiting museums with his family, and preparing for a possible exhibit of his photos at a local coffee shop in Dedham. Living off savings, unemployment, and severance packages, Adler knows he has to get a job eventually and has started the search. But for now, he’s cherishing every moment. “It’s our first child and I love watching her grow,” Adler said. “And it’s nice to have time off and get in touch with my old hobbies.”

It’s neat that Adler is able to spend time with his first child and catch up with old hobbies. It’s also a bit obtuse of the Globe to publish an article that will read to some like a foreign-language news report, particularly to those laid-off people who can’t afford to take the time to visit a museum because, perhaps, they’re on the verge of being evicted. Take this passage about “the grim task of making ends meet”:

Despite the grim task of making ends meet (firing the nanny, bailing on Whole Foods, applying for unemployment), there is a newly forming society of people who are making the best of being laid off. They are rediscovering hobbies. They are greeting kids at the school bus. They are remembering what daylight actually looks like.

On the one hand, there’s a size-of-the-universe problem. Abelson seems to have limited her interviewing to those who at least superficially might fit into the “laid off and loving it” category—i.e., those for whom being laid off doesn’t mean not being able to make rent or pay one’s telephone bill. Her subjects are downsizing from ski vacations and cab rides. While that socio-economic distinction is an understood and unmentioned bottom line of the article, it’s a fact that nevertheless grates, because it seems to belittle actual poverty. At the very least, it serves as a handy wall between the story and a much larger reality.

But in addition to this, Abelson’s piece connects this group of people by means of, at best, an artificial rubric. I’m curious to know how many of the three laid-off people she interviewed actually feel the sentiment “laid off and loving it.” I would suspect not all, or any, of them. I know few people who are that simplistic about their own lives. But Abelson’s studiedly rosy outlook keeps all her subjects conveniently in topical line, reducing people’s situations to fit the story idea. That’s hardly useful for anyone, laid-off or not, who might read it.

It’s one thing to write a thoughtful article exploring the positive ways that people are trying to cope with being laid off. That’s a super-broad category that spans different socio-economic strata, though—not just the college-educated professional class.

At article’s end, we hear about a forty-six-year-old woman who lost her $95,000 job designing teacher professional development training. After a recent week at home with her three-year-old, we are told that she has started missing her job—well, “Almost,” the article concludes. It’s a shame that we don’t know if it’s Abelson adding that afterthought, or the woman herself; that uncertainty also emblematizes the methodological problems of the article, which takes slimly reported anecdotes and shapes them to fit an exceedingly simplistic thesis. Without deeper interviews or more allotted newspaper inches, Abelson’s story is a superficial trend piece at best.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.