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For the 'funemployed,' unemployment's welcomed

These jobless folks, usually singles in their 20s and 30s, find that life without work agrees with them. They're not sending out resumes, but instead lazing at the beach and taking long trips abroad.

June 04, 2009|Kimi Yoshino

Michael Van Gorkom was laid off by Yahoo in late April. He didn't panic. He didn't rush off to a therapist. Instead, the 33-year-old Santa Monica resident discovered that being jobless "kind of settled nicely."

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."

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