Living in the anxiety economy

Corey Sarti lost his job in October. With 3 children to feed and a mortgage to pay, he and his wife ask: What next?

By Christian Zappone, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Not so long ago Corey Sarti earned $75,000, plus bonus, as a logistics manager at a software maker. His wife, Holly's home business kicked in a little extra, affording them a comfortable lifestyle in Stewartstown, a small Pennsylvania town near the Maryland border where the couple grew up.

Raising three children and covering a mortgage and two car loans was well within their means.

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Corey and Holly Sarti with children Michayla, Jayden and Brittany.

But when Corey, 30, was laid off last October, everything changed.

"I started looking for a job immediately," said Corey, who uses Web sites and the career coaching services negotiated as part of his exit package. "I've gone on 5 or 6 interviews. And gone through second interviews but the offers have been in the $45,000 to $50,000 range with no bonus. It's too far of a step backwards."

Holly, 29, had quit her job as a graphic designer for a local printing company after the birth of their youngest son, Jayden, now nearly 2. For a side gig, she bought her mother's business, a company that customizes sports clothing for local schools and Little League teams.

It has become full time, and Corey helps her with it. But because it's the first year running the business, he's not sure how much it will clear.

For now, "We have enough to pay the mortgage and electrical bills," said Corey. "That's about it." The only other cash coming in is $300 a week in state unemployment benefits.

"The holidays were a trying time," with few toys for their three kids, he recalled. A year earlier at Christmas, there were XBoxes and iPods under the tree. "It's been a lifestyle change" is how he characterized unemployment. "An immediate drastic lifestyle change."

Making do

Corey's savings are "depleted," he admitted. Yet, the expenses just keep rolling in.

The couple's car loans are through the local credit union, which is, in Corey's words, "gracious enough to be understanding" about their erratic repayments. "But it's doing damage to our credit and finances."

The couple is one month behind on their mortgage and in contact with their lender about their future options.

In addition to Jayden, the couple have two daughters: 13-year-old Brittany, who is in junior high, and 10-year-old Makayla.

And other expenses have actually grown as a result of unemployment.

One of the biggest challenges is insurance, which used to cost $140 a month through his company but now costs $1,083 a month through COBRA, which allows laid-off employees access to a company's insurance program.

Corey feels that the local market has few positions for someone with his professional background.

His most recent job, as a senior logistics manager and director of operations, involved streamlining the production process. Before that he worked as a product manager and special projects engineer at MW Industries, a springs and specialty fasteners company.

In high school, Corey worked summers at Sodico, a zinc and aluminum die-casting firm. He returned to Sodico as a project manager after getting his mechanical engineering degree from Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, Pa.

"I'm very blessed and happy with my family. The kids are all healthy. I'm happy I get to spend time with my son," said Corey. "But for jobs right now, it's dismal."

A shift in risk

The sort of income volatility Corey is experiencing has become much more common since the 1970s, according to Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker, author of the "The Great Risk Shift."

"Increasingly, middle-class Americans find themselves on a shaky financial tightrope, without an adequate safety net if they lose their footing," Hacker testified to Congress in January.

Thirty years ago, an average working-age American had a 7 percent chance of experiencing a drop of 50 percent or more in family income, according to Hacker. The same type of worker today has a 17 percent chance of such a decline, he said.

College-educated Americans like Corey experience income instability at the level high school dropouts did in the 1970s.

Nancy Culver, of Workstream (Charts)-owned executive outplacement firm Allen and Associates, said engineers like Corey and IT professionals have been hit hard by outsourcing and the availability of cheaper skilled labor abroad.

Culver, who is helping Corey transition to a new job, noted that his consistency in job performance makes him a highly marketable candidate.

She has found hundreds of companies that meet Corey's criteria and fall within his geographical preference, which would be to stay near his current home. But Corey has searched for jobs nationally, too. And he has also broadened his search across industries.

"You have to look at yourself as a product and package yourself as a product and sell yourself as one," said Culver, who specified that moving has to be a consideration for someone in Corey's situation.

Corey said he plans to revisit local employers to whom he's forwarded his resume. But he's realistic about his chances of remaining local.

"I'm starting to think if I have to look for career advancement I'm going to have to move the family," said Corey. "Or decide that the lower salary is all the economy here can support. Those are the choices that are out there."

[Allen and Associates] "tell me I should be like a salesman of myself," said Corey, who mentioned he used to have salesmen report to him at MW Industries.

"Being coached is difficult because you build up a sort of confidence in yourself. As doors shut, you begin to wonder, am I doing things wrong or doing them right?"

Corey said he's anxious and worried but no more than when he first told Holly he was going to lose his job. He's more stressed and cautious about what the couple spends. He's aware of what the kids need.

"You buy for the kids before yourself," said Corey. "It hasn't affected the kids as far as they can see."

"But it's affected us."

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