Notes from a Layoff-phobe

Some people are terrified of dogs. Others are afraid of spiders or heights or enclosed spaces. I live in fear of layoffs. Doesn’t matter whether it’s happening at my company or at my husband’s cousin’s brother-in-law’s, “downsizing” scares the bejeezus out of me.

So for me, editing Paul Miller’s cover story on layoffs within the catalog industry was akin to a claustrophobe waiting for a delayed subway at Times Square during rush hour. When one or two catalogers — Fingerhut or Hanover, for instance — reduce staff, it’s typically because of internal problems unique to the corporation. When a gamut of companies, large and small alike, begin letting go of workers, it points to a larger, and more frightening, trend.

But I wonder how many catalogers that are now tightening their belts could have prepared themselves better for the current economic malaise. In our January cover story “What Slowdown?” a number of mailers insisted that their businesses would be immune from any downturn, because a) their merchandise was unique, or b) because their merchandise was a commodity. During the fourth quarter of 2000, even as consumer confidence was plummeting and consumer debt was rising, companies — not just or even especially catalogers — continued to spend, spend, spend. No one seemed to remember the cyclical nature of economies.

But the very ebb and flow of economic fortunes will now work toward our benefit. In other words, just as the good times couldn’t last forever, neither will the bad.

And, in fact, as far as bad times go, these aren’t that bad. The same day we put the cover story to bed, The Wall Street Journal printed an article titled “Jobs Data Offer Encouraging Signs on Recession.” February’s unemployment rate was 4.2%, not quite full employment but still comfortingly close to the 30-year low. As one economist told the Journal: “The 4.2% unemployment rate and the accelerating wages we saw in today’s employment report would make this the strongest recession I’ve seen.”

That’s not much solace to those workers who are signing up for unemployment benefits. But hopefully it will mean that by the time they receive their first unemployment check, they’ll be getting ready to collect a salary check as well.

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