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The Upside of Unemployment: 15 Stories

Where Are All the Jobs?


Just when we think we’re out, they pull us back in. The recession may be over, but the jobs are still not back. The unemployment rate is hovering around the dreaded 10 percent, and there are fewer job openings now than there were before. Those who are getting work are more likely to be stuck with a temp job, than steady employment and not only are more people unemployed, but they are unemployed for longer. As of last month, there were 6.1 million Americans who had been out of work for 27 weeks or more.

All of this means that we as Americans may have to get used to being a nation with lingering unemployment. But for some, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Putting aside the obvious issues that come from joblessness and the lack of a steady paycheck, there can be some significant perks to being out of work.

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The New Face of Unemployment


One positive today is that much of the stigma surrounding unemployment is gone. “People who were unemployed decades ago were ashamed of it and tried to hide it,” said Alexandra Levit, a career columnist for the Wall Street Journal and the author of New Job, New You. Now, she says it’s more common for people to hop around between jobs and have gaps in employment. “Virtually everyone has been unemployed for at least a short period of time, and employers don’t tend to hold it against you if you’ve made a valiant effort to get back on the horse.”

Not only is there less shame in being unemployed today, but there may also be some serious perks. “Unemployment can absolutely be useful in your career,” Levit said. “Sometimes it provides the push to assess if the work you’ve been involved in truly motivates you, or if there is something out there that would be a better fit.” In order to make the most of your time unemployed, Levit recommends that you “take time to heal” before rushing into a new job, and perhaps most importantly, don’t be lazy or idle. Meet people, work on your career goals and hobbies and create new tasks for yourself.

With that in mind, we collected the success stories and advice from real people who were laid off and managed to make the most of their unemployment.

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Extended Maternity Leave


Jennifer Wilt was ready to freak out when she got laid off back in December, 2008. She lives in Chesterfield Township, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, which has been ravaged by layoffs. To make matters worse, Jennifer was eight months pregnant with her first child.  Oh, and her husband had been laid off a year earlier. “So I was the health insurance holder,” she said. “All I could think about were the expenses we still had to shell out in getting ready for the baby. I thought there couldn't be a worse time for me to get laid off.”

Wilt did have to struggle to pay for COBRA coverage and make ends meet, but as she said, “when I had my son on February 13, 2009 I found the silver lining of my unemployment: I did not have to go back to work 8 weeks after having the baby, as originally planned.” Wilt essentially got to enjoy an extended maternity leave. “I had the opportunity to stay home with my son until he was 8 months old, when I finally landed a job. I always saw myself as a career woman who wouldn’t like the stay-at-home mom life, but I truly enjoyed and am forever grateful for the time I was unemployed.”

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Starting A Business... A Beer Business


Talk about a dream come true! Jim Woods had worked as a commercial real estate analyst at Deutsche Bank for 5 years when there was a round of layoffs in November, 2008. By this point, Woods had already launched an organic beer called MateVeza, which he was promoting on the nights and weekends, whenever he wasn’t working his 9 to 5. But the layoffs at his company turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“I knew my full support was critical for MateVeza’s success,” he told MainStreet. “The severance and unemployment being offered by Deutsche Bank was the perfect opportunity to jump into beer full-time. So I politely asked my boss to lay me off.”

This happened in August, 2009, and already the beer is being distributed in Whole Foods and has been declared “buzz worthy” by the San Francisco Chronicle. Granted, Woods wasn’t exactly unemployed for long, but he certainly found a way to make the most of being laid off. He told us that he “hadn’t even considered the possibility” of asking to leave his full time job until the layoffs happened. Now, he is enjoying the opportunity to be “creative and innovative.”

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Eligible for A Cheaper Home


Denis from Palm Springs, California had been a computer programmer for more than 13 years when he got laid off in early 2009. Being unemployed gave Denis time to study for a test to be licensed in a business profession. But it also gave him one unforeseen perk. “We bought our home in January of 2009, which qualified for the government tax benefit program for new home buyers,” he said. However, when they bought the home, Denis was still employed and the combined income between he and his wife was too high to qualify for the program. Yet, he lost his job shortly thereafter and “because of my unemployment, our income will fall below the threshold which will make us eligible for the government benefit when we file in a few weeks.”

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Free College


Claire from Des Moines, Iowa was laid off in April, 2009 and found two unique perks to being unemployed.  Because of the change in her income, she was able to apply for and receive a free year of college for both her children at her local community college in Iowa. On top of that, now she gets to be home “when my kids show up for lunch between their college classes and work.”

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The Never-Ending Honeymoon


We should warn you in advance: this story will probably make you jealous. Linda and Brendan got married in July of last year. At the time, they both had jobs, though neither was exactly living the 9 to 5 life. Brendan was a freelance photographer and working to become a firefighter, and Linda was at the helm of a small business she’d just started. They had discussed the idea of taking a long vacation/honeymoon after getting married, and finally, one night, they decided to leave their jobs and travel the world together.

“Up till now, we’ve been to Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, and Mexico. My family is from Mexico, so that’s a money saver,” Linda told us. “We’re heading off to New York soon and then to Africa. Next Greece and then probably Asia, but that’s just a rough estimate.” Right, a rough estimate.  So where did all the money for this trip come from? “We had saved some money up for a house, but when we decided to take this trip, we decided we don’t need a house just yet, we have the rest of our lives to work and save more money,” she said, and added that the money from the wedding also helped a bit.

To their credit, the happy couple have even found a way combine some work with pleasure. Linda did a brief internship while they were in Argentina and they also started a Web site about their travels.

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Time Apart


Of course, not every couple gets to be unemployed together for a year. Paula, from East Hampton, New York, has continued to plug away building a business in the health industry while her husband, who was recently laid off, gets to travel the world. “He took his severance money and went on a trip through India, Nepal, Thailand and Greece for about 5 months – something he always wanted to do,” she said. “He is scuba diving in the Philippines as I write this.” However, Paula is happy for her husband and eager to rejoin him in the near future. “We are in the process of deciding when and where I will meet him to spend a few weeks travelling with him. Then he will spend the last month of this trip in China and then venture back home to return to the working world.”

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The Chance to Write A Book (and Time to Vent)


We heard many stories from Americans who were laid off and took the time to finally write the great American novel.  Our personal favorite of the bunch is the story of Joseph Tibman, a senior investment banker who had worked for 20 years at Lehman Brothers before he lost his job. For the next few months, Tibman dedicated himself to writing a book, called The Murder of Lehman Brothers, which explained how his old company ended up in the dump, while excoriating some of the executive decisions that were made.

Tibman (which is actually a pseudonym he used to publish the book), told us he would have wanted to write the book even if had somehow kept his job, but it was unemployment that really gave him the opportunity. “I would have struggled to find the time.  Unemployed,  I  was able to truly dedicate myself to it,” he said. If you are unemployed and have enough money saved up to last you for a while, Tibman recommends that you “try something completely different from the work in which you were employed.” Alternatively, you could just follow Tibman’s example and rant about the company that let you go!

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Self Discovery


A recession is a terrible time to have a midlife crisis. In 2007, Joyce Wilde was 46, stuck in a job that she said offered “no opportunities to grow,” and knew she needed to make a change to her life. She found another job, but it was “contingent on an unpaid internship.” After a couple months she quit this and took another job, which also proved to be the wrong fit. At last, she found herself out of work and moving  multiple times to wherever the cost of living was the cheapest.

In every way, this sounds like a horror story, and yet, Wilde asserts that she has no regrets about this episode in her life. “My whole life I was a workaholic and didn’t realize that I was avoiding myself with my work ethic,” she said. “I am much more well balanced than before.” Wilde argues that her time off, floundering around between jobs, has actually helped her to pinpoint the kind of work she really wants to do. She is now working to start her own business as an organizer and transition coach.

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Comfort Food


Courtney Adams lost her job working at Sony Music back in December, 2008. Rather than spend 24 hours a day agonizing over the job search, she worked on a business plan for a catering shop. Adams had always been passionate about cooking, but as she told MainStreet, “I am fairly certain I would never have left my job by choice to start a catering business.” Her catering business is called Uptown Comfort, which she has appropriately dubbed, Good Food for Bad Times. She managed to network through the 405 Club, a popular unemployment Web site and support group, in order to get her first catering event and her business has continued to thrive since.

According to Adams, there’s a very basic silver lining to unemployment. “There's only so many hours of the day that can be committed to looking for jobs,” she said. “So additional time is at your discretion in a way that would never be available while working full time.” Take advantage of this time and use it to make a down payment on your dreams.

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Getting in Shape


It’s too easy to sit around all day while unemployed and give in to your munchies. But unemployment is the perfect time to join the gym and get in shape. Janet Raiffa had spent nearly a decade working at Goldman Sachs, and in that time, she ate more than she should have. She ate while on company trips, she ate at free recruiting dinners and she ate more on ordinary days in the office just because of all the stress from her job.

When she finally left that job in 2008, she had gone from a size 10 to a size 16. Raiffa did a brief stint at a legal firm, but then was laid off from that position in early 2009. Soon, Raiffa made the wise decision to embark on a serious fitness quest. She joined a gym in Manhattan, and after a few months, she lost 30 pounds. Best of all, it became a part of her life she could control.

“It became something where I could set a goal and work towards something,” she said in an interview with MainStreet. “I Approached going to the gym like going to a job and it gave me a routine.” The effects are very noticeable. “For the first time, I bought a pair of size 6 jeans… and I posted an actual picture of myself on Facebook instead of just a cartoon graphic.” However, as she quips, “I’m not exactly going to start a new career as a model, but I feel great.”

For more of her story, check out her write-up on The 405 Club.

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More Time for Video Games


While it may be a stretch to say that this is really a positive thing, surveys have shown that laid off workers use much of their time to catch up on the best video games. Although sometimes, the love of video games can be overwhelm the urge to find a job, as happened in one case recently featured on MainStreet.

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The Globetrotter


Brian Peters, 36, worked as a Vice President of IT at a bank in Manhattan before he was laid off in September, 2008. Peters decided to forego applying for jobs right away. “I knew if I got another job immediately I would get caught up in work and may never get this prime opportunity again,” he said. Instead, Peters decided to travel the world (and blog about it.) He lived off his severance and relied on many cost-saving strategies like couch-surfing and flying on off-peak days. He has since been able to make some cash from his travels, by turning his blog into an ebook, which he sells online.

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Starting Over


Kirk Steinbruecker lost his job working in property management in June last year, but he told us the best thing about losing his job was that it pushed him to go back to school. He studied to become certified to work on a Community Emergency Response Team. Kirk is also looking to change careers, applying for internships as a sound recording engineer. Sometimes the best way to be successful is to start over completely.

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Spending Time With A Sick Loved One


Shirley, from Colorado, found a bittersweet use to unemployment. When she was laid off from her job at Qwest Communications in 2001, her mother was in poor health, and was just transferred to hospice care. “I was able to sit with her daily and not have to worry about someone picking up my workload or having work stack up on my desk,” she said. “I was able to solely concentrate on the major issue at hand, my mother.”

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The Family Man


Mark, from Philadelphia, worked a corporate job for years before he found himself unemployed. He has been working hard since then to start up his own business. Mark says the best part of being unemployed is not the opportunity to be an entrepreneur, but rather the chance to spend time with his family.  “I have been able to give my son rides to school in the morning and be around most days when he arrives home from school,” Mark said. “The best part has been the opportunity to coach his football team at the middle school during fall afternoons and my son's basketball team in the community league during the winter.  None of these opportunities to grow with my son would have been possible if I still had my corporate job where I logged 140,000 air miles annually!”

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