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February 18, 2001

Preludes: The Dot-Com Jobless, at Play


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IT is hard to feel too sorry for some of the unemployed masses of young people. Sure, it is sad that their dot-com dreams have ended. And it is unfortunate that their stock options are worthless.

But pity them? Many of them are having entirely too much fun.

Yes, the boys and girls of Silicon Valley and other dot-com centers are taking their severance money and doing all sorts of exciting things now that they are jobless: traveling, renovating homes, going back to school or reveling in happy relationships. It's amazing what the dot-com downturn has done for their social lives.

Alli Ehrenberg, 28, and Myles Weissleder, 30, are engaged to be married in September hardly a possibility when Ms. Ehrenberg was working long hours as a brand manager at, a design firm in the San Francisco Bay area.

"Who had the time?" she asked. "Losing my job was the best thing that could have happened to us as a couple and for me personally. I'm not stressed. I'm not worried. I can enjoy our time together instead of always thinking about work." Ms. Ehrenberg now spends her days planning her wedding, doing yoga and sleeping in. Mr. Weissleder runs a small Internet marketing company.

Michael Feinstein is also enjoying his free time. At 26, he is the newly deposed director for business development at the now-defunct, which sold college textbooks at a discount.

The way he sees it, the recent layoffs have only enhanced his personal life, and those of his high-tech comrades. "Right after we folded, two out of our three founders got engaged, one to the former C.E.O. of, which also failed," said Mr. Feinstein, who lives in San Francisco and is now vacationing in Southeast Asia. "Another is on the verge. My old roommate was having a long-distance relationship with a woman in New York, but after his company fell apart he asked her to move out here." She did, he said.

Mr. Feinstein used to attend galas to introduce the newest or coolest in Web sites, gadgets or marketing concepts. Now he attends more intimate dinner parties. And people are not talking only about initial public offerings and business plans.

"Night life used to be very homogeneous," he said. "It had a shallow feel to it young kids celebrating the fact that they were making money. The failure has almost brought them down to earth. People are talking about real things, exploring different ideas. It's actually interesting going out now."

Mr. Feinstein's relationship with his girlfriend, Melinda Smith, 24, a San Francisco writer whom he has been dating since last summer, has also flourished. Before his company folded, the couple were relegated to weekend and late-night dates, "but now we can hang out during the week," he said.

One possible pitfall is that his newfound freedom may give him time to stray. "There's more opportunity for temptation because I'm exposed to more people now," he said. Still, for the most part, his unemployment has turned a casual romance more serious.

The explanation is up for debate. Mr. Feinstein, who is applying to business school, says it has to do with the need for stability in a generally unstable world, where so many young people have tied their sense of self-worth to their careers. "When someone loses a job, they often feel insecure and need something to hold on to an anchor," he said. "What's better than a relationship?"

PERHAPS, but it may be even deeper. Maybe these people who have spent the past two years locked in an office are realizing some things that older workers already know: that there is more to life than a computer and a mouse, that live, not virtual, connections matter, and that stock options do not. These young people may be having their midlife crises early.

Of course, not every story has a happy ending. Jennifer Thompson's relationship ended after her boyfriend's dot-com company did. "I was devastated, but I couldn't compete with his job," said Ms. Thompson, 29, a graphic designer in Manhattan.

As for Ms. Ehrenberg and Mr. Weissleder, they intend to enjoy their free time together as long as the money holds out. Ms. Ehrenberg wants her next career to offer a change in direction hopefully less stressful and with flexible hours. "There's more to life than just work," she said.

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