Losing the Income, and the Camaraderie

This article originally appeared in The New York Times
May 16, 2009

I WAS around No. 1,892,450 of the 2,111,000 people who lost their jobs in the United States last October. It happened near the end of the month. I wasn’t new to layoffs — my first one was in 2001 — but this was different. This time, I not only lost my income, but also I lost the day-to-day camaraderie of a particularly close group of colleagues.

“The Great Good Place,” a book by the urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, talks about the social and psychological importance of what he calls “third places.” He designates home as “first place” and work as “second place.” He describes “third place” as somewhere neutral, convenient, comfortable and welcoming. It’s where regulars gather and where conversation is lively, engaging and often accompanied by laughter. Soda fountains, beer gardens, cafes and Main Streets have traditionally functioned as third places.

But with a dearth of cozy public gathering spots in America today, I was lucky to have found my third place right inside my second place.

Five days a week, I spent time with my colleagues. Most days, we chatted over morning coffee, hung out at lunch and indulged in more late-afternoon guffaws than management might have liked.

In one of our more serious conversations, we compared notes on how we had each fallen into advertising, never having set out to work in that field. One woman who has a graduate degree in psychology went on to say: “I used to fantasize about escaping this business and finding something I truly love to do. In this economy, however, my only hope is to keep the job I have.”

My co-workers and I were a disparate group. While we were all advertising copywriters, we covered a range of ages and lifestyles, and it’s unlikely we would have met socially. That’s one of the charms of third places: they expand your possibilities. Forging connections with people outside your usual circle gives you a broader sense of community. And of belonging.

I stay in contact with my former colleagues through e-mail, instant messaging, and the occasional phone call. I also joined Facebook, but none of it is the same. Without the shared time, week in and week out, it’s hard to find the loose threads of conversation that dangled in the air among us.

Our communications have become more like a series of polite inquiries: “How was your weekend?”, “Is your husband over the flu yet?”, “Did you hear that Deb found a new job?”

These days, I spend most of my time at home. When I was first laid off, I sent out résumés and made networking calls, but when many of the other ad agencies turned to layoffs, too, I realized that my job prospects were limited. I became, by default, a freelance writer.

Now, my first place is also my second place. I negotiate freelance gigs by e-mail, and if I need background materials for a project, my clients send them to me digitally. I use e-mail and the phone to communicate. Working from home, I lack not only the third-place socializing I used to enjoy with my congenial coworkers, but I also miss out on the basic human contact that usually comes standard in a second place.

As Mr. Oldenburg wrote in The Planning Commissioners Journal, “Social well-being and psychological health depend upon community.” Having a third place, along with a first and second, he says, “suggests the stability of the tripod in contrast to the relative instability of the bipod.” What would he make, I wonder, of my monopod existence?

Of course, there are benefits to working from home. I save on gasoline and can stay in my pajamas all day — and my dog adores having me there.

But I, too, am a social animal, and the lack of human interaction — aside from the one-on-one kind I share with my husband in the evenings — is starting to take its toll. In addition to the loneliness, I’m finding it harder to maintain a sense of perspective, and humor, about my life, and when I am finally in a group situation, I feel out of practice and like the shy kid I used to be.

In an effort to create a better balance for myself, I’ve tried taking my laptop to Starbucks. I know from its marketing materials that it seeks to be a third place, but I’ve found that no matter how many people are sitting there drinking coffee and tapping away at their computers, the experience is essentially solitary. With little wit, laughter or lively, engaging conversation among regulars — and no free coffee — it bears little resemblance to my ex-office.

RECENTLY, I heard about a new way for people like me to deal with their second- and third-place needs. It’s called “co-working.” The idea is that someone sets up an office space and then rents out desks. For a modest fee, you get a quiet place to work, big-office amenities — copier, printer, microwave and free coffee or tea — and an instant community. Everyone works independently, but you have the opportunity to share ideas and socialize. Co-working seems to be catching on around the country, and I’m hoping that a space will open soon near me.

More than five million people have been laid off in the United States since December 2007, so I know I’m not alone. While that makes me no less lonely, it does suggest that there are hordes of people out there who, like me, have suffered from a double loss: their income, as well a place that provided a special form of social nourishment.