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Here come the 'Duppies'
Tough times have spawned a new class of 'depressed urban professionals.'
June 17, 2003: 3:55 PM EDT
By Leslie Haggin Geary, CNN/Money Staff Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - In the dry argot of government statisticians, they're the "underemployed" -- people who aren't working as much as they'd like to.

But a better name for them might be "Duppies" -- depressed urban professionals.

They are people like Maureen Miranda, 27, from Jersey City, N.J., who only two years ago was a bona fide yuppie, earning as much as $65,000 annually at her "regular" job as a Web and software designer. She also regularly charged up to $75 an hour for freelance Web design gigs.

Then the tech bust came and Miranda was laid off in May 2001. She now grabs retail work wherever and whenever she can find it, selling clothes in New Jersey boutiques and chain stores, earning between $7 and $10 an hour.

"It's going to be a slow process to get back where I was," acknowledges Miranda.

Millions underemployed

Miranda is not alone. According to government labor statistics, 4.8 million individuals are underemployed. That's on top of the 8.7 million counted as unemployed and looking for jobs, not to mention the 4.2 million non-working who don't bother.

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The unemploy- ment rate rose to 6.1 percent in May, from 6.0 percent in April. CNNfn's Louise Schiavone reports.

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"People who have been out for a while say, 'I've got to get back to work,' so they take downgraded jobs," says John Challenger, CEO of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "Maybe they can't get a job as the plant manager, so they try to get a job as a manager on the factory line and work their way back up."

But that journey "back" to where they left off brings its own set of financial and emotional challenges.

One of the most difficult adjustments? Learning to lose an intellectually challenging job for one that is, well, less than rigorous on the brain cells.

"I used to work with people who programmed artificial intelligence who are brilliant and fun and interesting. Then, all of a sudden, I'm working with someone who talks about the way someone's butt looks in a pair of pants," says Miranda.

Such disappointment is typical, says Martin Pierce, a career counselor from Belmont, Mass.

Pierce runs professional networking meetings once a week through WIND, a New England professional networking group that offers practical how-to advice and emotional encouragement for unemployed and underemployed individuals.

Says Pierce: "For most Americans, their identity is tied up to what they do. Depression is very common with the unemployed." Pierce encourages men and women who attend the networking meetings to volunteer or to take part-time jobs -- even those that pay a few dollars an hour -- to stave off the blues.

Prepared for the worst

Older Duppies who've lived through previous layoffs seem prepared for the emotional and financial shifts that a protracted job loss can bring.

Where the ax fell
Job cuts announced in May
IndustryTotal losses
Industrial Goods7,176
Health Care4,379
Source:Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

Janet Crystal, 51, says the loss of her job as a new-products planner for companies like Lucent in March 2002 hasn't brought "much of a shift" in her lifestyle for several reasons. First, she was lucky enough to cash out stocks before the market crashed. Second, the Boston-area resident has lived through layoffs before and was good about saving. Finally, Crystal says she long ago learned the satisfaction of living simply. She savors her garden, good books, friendships.

"I can live very, very cheaply," she says. "I have my own place, animals I love, my car, mobility."

Her simple lifestyle means Crystal won't have to dig into her 401(k) to cover the bills. Other savings sit mostly untouched, as well, and are only tapped for big emergencies, such as car repairs. And she recently got a job at Trader Joe's, a gourmet discount-food chain. It pays $10 an hour, but Crystal is delighted because it offers health care coverage.

"My COBRA runs out in August, and it was critical to find something -- anything -- that had medical coverage," she says.

Time for a new career?

Negotiating bills and emotional changes aren't the only adjustments Duppies face. Many also find it's time to consider switching to a new career. Older workers seem better prepared for such shifts.

Consider the case of Peter, who asked that his last name not be used. At 45, the San Francisco resident has learned to be professionally nimble. After graduating with a triple major in math, computer science and philosophy from the College of William & Mary, Peter started working in the defense industry. With Ronald Reagan in the White House, he says, "It looked like the next growth industry."

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He was right for a while. But growth in defense spending began to slow, so he ventured into tech and telecom. Soon he was earning roughly $200,000 a year as a vice president of technology at a large Web consulting firm.

"No one is worth $200,000 a year," he says with a laugh. "That was the market price, but in no way did I think the gravy train would go on forever."

In March 2001 he lost his job.

Once again, Peter has tried to retool himself and return to a job in defense. But with old job contacts and skills, he's found only dead ends. His new strategy? Starting a consulting company that helps large companies manage and purchase information technology systems.

"The first time I was laid off, I was shattered," Peter says. "But the single biggest thing that works against you is your own attitude. I don't eat at really good restaurants anymore, but in terms of going to a movie, the gym, taking courses, I do that. You can't be miserable 24 hours a day."  Top of page

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