The dotcom generation revisits its values

For Hank Machtay, Web design was a logical and lucrative extension of a life spent in the fields of editing and arts and entertainment.

For Phillip "P.J." Stambaugh, the glamour and gold of the dotcom boom swept him from Ithaca, N.Y., to California's Silicon Valley in 1999.

And when Trishna Shah selected a job at an e-commerce strategy group after graduating from college last year, it was part of a carefully planned path to "success."

All three were beneficiaries of the technology boom of the late 1990s, and all three are now among its victims.

Yet for many, losing a job is proving more of a beginning than an end.

Painful and frightening as the process may be, individuals caught in the dotcom downdraft say they are making fundamental changes - the kind that could, in total, alter the outlook and values of many in their generation.

One thing is already certain. The character portrait of the dotcom generation as spoiled, self-centered, and unacquainted with the real world is rapidly disappearing.

In its place, a culture is emerging that puts greater emphasis on growth and opportunity at work, and less on salary and stock options. And for many, there is a deeper questioning of the meaning of life and career, say career-guidance experts.

"This whole process is liberating people to take a risk on jobs that they think will be more satisfying," says John Epperheimer, president of the WorkPath Group in Santa Clara, Calif. As a result, he adds, the types of career changes that usually occur when people hit middle age are happening to an extraordinarily high number of people in their 20s and 30s.

This is a far cry from the work-is-everything, sleep-under-the-desk, never-log-off, get-it-while-you-can mentality that has permeated the Internet culture.

Of course, today's upheaval and questioning are not unique. But just as the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War, and other events have shaped succeeding generations and their outlook on society, the technology downturn is also more than just a mass job hunt. It is a force that is changing core values and attitudes, say experts.

Ms. Shah graduated from University of California Berkeley's business school last year and found a waiting court of recruiters. She selected work at an e-commerce strategy group, and the pieces were all fitting together.

But when Shah was laid off earlier this year, "it was a real wake-up call," she says.

"In college you're constantly planning for the next phase of life, your job and your career," she explains. "But now I'm feeling different. I'm not living just for the next step."

Let go not once but twice

Mr. Machtay can relate, though he is not your typical dotcom worker.

Middle-aged, with longer hair than is fashionable and the hint of a New York accent, Machtay was the "cool uncle" to many of the younger employees at the San Francisco dotcom where he worked last year. But that Internet site went out of business, leading Machtay to another dotcom job, which was axed last November.

Machtay "grew up poor" in New York, the son of an office janitor. With that perspective, he marveled at the Internet explosion and the opportunities it brought him. "The jobs were just so incredible and so lucrative," he says.

But when the ax fell last fall, Machtay was already finding the Internet world somewhat unfulfilling. He was, as he puts it, "looking for a way to give back."

Necessity, desire, and turning 50, says Machtay, combined to push him to finally grasp his dream and become a teacher. "I realized I love teaching. In graduate school I was a teaching assistant, and people I work with always tell me I'm a great teacher," he says.

Machtay will take a test next month to qualify as a substitute teacher and is already teaching a weekly computer workshop on Web production at San Francisco's Mission High School.

At about the same time Machtay was getting laid off in San Francisco, Mr. Stambaugh was still thriving at his job in nearby Redwood City. He worked in the business-development department of a startup that created Internet map technology.

But that wasn't what he had in mind when he entered Cornell University and successfully pursued a degree in landscape architecture, a field that connected with his love of the outdoors and plants. After graduation in 1999, though, Stambaugh headed to Silicon Valley, persuaded by friends who were quickly landing jobs and making good money.

But by last fall, Stambaugh was sending pained e-mails to his sister back East. In one, he complained that his work to create better and better Internet products had become "absent of the things I value."

The economy, in a sense, put an end to his disillusionment, forcing his dotcom out of business a few months ago.

From the Web to the garden

These days, Stambaugh has less money, but an outdoor tan and high spirits. He's project manager for a landscape firm, spending most of his day meeting with customers and discussing their gardening and landscape dreams.

"I'm a different individual now," he says. "I'm happy on a real high level."

Of course there are many still employed in the Internet world, and loving it. But even among the gainfully employed, there is a new uncertainty. The unemployment rate in Santa Clara County for April jumped sharply, a reminder that the flow of pink slips could continue to accelerate.

Even for many of those who continue to work in technology, attitudes seem different. Says Mr. Epperheimer: "The pendulum has moved back to a more balanced approach to work and life."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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