"For me the recession and getting laid off has been transformative. It brings to a head what I really value." says Alex Gargarita, 45-year-old single father of two. Alex is one of thousands left jobless because of the tech industry contraction in Silicon Valley, but rather than viewing the career disruption as hardship or professional setback, he plans to use his downtime as an opportunity to reinvent his life and self.
Alex has been working in Silicon Valley since 1986, so lived through the dot com swan dive of the late 1990s. "This is so much worse," he says. "This is the worst downturn. Much worse than the tech bubble bursting."
Official statistics back up Alex's impression of the economic state of Silicon Valley. According to the state's Employment Development Department, post-dot-com-bust unemployment peaked at 9.2% in early 2003. In August, effects of the recession had unemployment in Silicon Valley at 12%, though experts note the rate of job losses has slowed dramatically over the past two months, indicating the tech industry may be entering an early stage of recovery.
For Alex's future life plans, Silicon Valley recovery is all but irrelevant, since he has no intention of returning. His unemployment check covers the mortgage payment for now. Anthony, his 21-year-old son, has picked up a part-time job to help contribute to household expenses while in school studying criminology. Alex is learning out how to apply for various government assistance for help with utilities and food, so their collective scrimping and saving will keep them going for awhile. If Alex ever has a moment of insecurity, anxiety, or doubt, he just looks at his youngest son, 11-year-old Nicholas, who struggles with an autism-spectrum disorder. "He's just happy and wants love and wants to play. Whenever I need a sense of perspective, I just talk to him."
Most of Alex's 20+year career has been dedicated to marketing one high-tech product or another. He excelled at his work, earned good money--enough to purchase a small house in 1997, sufficient to convince him that comfortable affluence equaled happiness. But after being laid off in July, he has begun to spend time examining his values, re-evaluating what he thinks important.
"I can't really dwell on being unemployed and feel bad about it. I've really been thinking a lot about what I want to do with my life and career. Over this time, I've begun to realize that living with that traditional corporate culture mindset, in a lot of ways I felt like a robot. Balance was really lacking when I was working. It was all work, work, work. It's about 'the rush.' Peope do that all the time, I think in Silicon Valley more than anywhere else. It's an addiction to work. An addiction to ambition. An addiction to succeed."
"I don't know what an ideal American dream is anymore. Right now I'm trying to re-invent myself completely. There are so many things I would give up for a better quality of life. And what I consider a better quality of life is evolving under the current circumstances. I have a small house, but I would trade for a smaller house. Having a higher quality of life means having balance. That means being able to spend time with my family, pursuing my passion. I don't really see work as something inside an 8 to 5 box anymore. These days work is global, 24 hours. I don't want to be bound by the traditional concept of having a 'J.O.B.'"
"I'm using this time to establish more harmony and balance in my life. Now that I've gained this perspective, ideally I'd like my work to revolve around my lifestyle, rather than have my life revolve around my work. I want to do something that has meaning--something that helps people. Probably sounds cheesy, but it's true. Even though it won't be so lucrative, if I can do something I am passionate about, that will be so much more fulfilling."
From the hundreds of resumes he has sent out since being laid off, Alex considers himself lucky that one provoked a phonecall from a prospective employer. With well-over 100,000 laid off people in Silicon Valley currently seeking new employment, Alex expects it would be many months, if not years, before the local job market returns to an even keel.
If he could figure out how to monetize an informational start-up, Alex would find it profoundly fulfilling to launch an autism-related website as a comprehensive resource center for parents whose children have just been diagnosed. Alex always has to fight to ensure schools provide his son Nicholas with the tools he needs to progress along with his age group. Since Alex has had to figure out how to work the system to protect his son's rights and provide for his special needs, Alex guesses there are thousands of parents across the country starting the same process with no idea how to begin. Alex can relate to their struggle and would like to help, so is looking into how he could establish such a service professionally. He wouldn't want to get rich, as long as he could pay the mortgage and provide food and educational opportunities for his children.
As other possible future professional pursuits, Alex suggests he would feel enriched by having a green job, or working for a non-profit--particularly one that could address the country's healthcare problems. "I'm all over this Obama healthcare reform thing," he says. In order to continue his health coverage through Cobra for himself and two sons, he would have to pay $1250 a month in premiums. "Companies have to offer COBRA, but what they offer, no one can afford. That's almost what I pay for my mortgage. So I have to choose between my family's health security or paying my mortgage. That is not a choice anyone should have to make."
Alex's attempts to apply for independent health insurance through companies like Blue-Cross have failed, since they all reject his pre-existing condition--asthma. Until he recovers financially, the now-uninsured Alex just has to hope and pray his good health endures.
Health worries aside, Alex views this period of unemployment as an eye-opening opportunity to re-set everything his life represents. In his youth, Alex accepted the dominant convention that had been instilled in him since birth, blindly pursuing a path so deeply-ingrained in our culture that any deviance is consider abnormal. He finished school, got married, had a child, bought a house, had another child, got divorced. Now with a chance to re-evaluate his life from the perspective of a jobless 45-year-old, Alex concludes: "I'm tired of slaving; I want to live."
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