In Germany, newly jobless form an army of free agents

As the economy flags, young professionals learn that a flawless résumé isn't the guarantee it once was.

Annette Lindinger's career was zooming along. A university-trained translator, she had become an information technology consultant and risen to lead a 12-person team running projects for large multinationals.

But then the technology boom began to sputter. Ms. Lindinger's employer, an American IT consulting firm, slashed its staff to 500 employees from 2,500 in three waves over the course of just over a year.

Unemployed since November, the Heidelberg native is part of a new trend here: Young, well-trained professionals are discovering, to their dismay, that their flawless résumés and work experience aren't enough to keep them off the dole.

While their parents could count on finding a job for life, Germany's "jobless generation," as a leading German magazine put it recently, is finding out that change, rather than stability, is becoming the norm. The upshot: Both German employers and employees are being forced to be more flexible. That is also putting pressure on politicians to ease labor-market regulations, even over the stiff resistance of Germany's powerful trade unions.

At first Ms. Lindinger kept the news of her dismissal to herself. She says her parents were shocked when she did tell them, confirming her fear that in Germany there was still bias against the unemployed, even though the jobless rate has hovered around 10 percent for nearly a decade. "I think it is more widely accepted in the US when you lose your job," she says, "while here in Germany being unemployed is associated with being destitute and on social assistance."

The jobless generation partly reflects the rapid rise internation- ally in the stock market in the '90s and the swift decline when the Internet bubble burst.

Still, many of Germany's economic problems are homemade. The German economy has been stuck in a slow motion for years. Growth in the gross domestic product has averaged just 1.5 percent since the end of 1996, compared with 2.8 percent in the rest of the countries that share the euro, Europe's common currency. Economists cite the high cost of German labor and overregulation of the labor market as the primary obstacles to growth.

Despite the economic slump, Ver.di, Germany's largest trade union, is waging wildcat strikes for higher pay for government workers. More than 110,000 civil servants were on strike last Tuesday, shutting down public services and some airports.

As Germany's economic woes mount - a record 40,000 small- and medium-sized businesses are expected to go bankrupt this year, for example - the relationship between employer and employee is also changing. As happened in the US earlier, German companies are finding they must be more flexible and increasingly hiring staff on temporary project-oriented contracts. That makes it easier for the company to respond to a downturn in the market, but is also spawning an army of free agents. In a new law to regulate the development, German politicians have dubbed such free agents "Ich AG" or, roughly translated, "Me Inc."

The rise of the free agent has benefited some professionals, such as Martin Weigele. After being laid off this year from Deutsche Telekom AG, the telecommunications giant, he used his experience to start his own business consultancy.

Like many, Ms. Lindinger initially found it hard to deal with losing her job. "At first I went through a frustration phase," she says. "But then I realized that others were going through the same thing, that it wasn't my fault."

In fact, so many others were going through that same experience that the Rev. Martin Loewenstein, a Jesuit campus minister in Frankfurt's banking quarter, has begun offering training seminars to help people like Ms. Lindinger process their experiences. A hundred participants from around Germany showed up for the first seminar in September. He says he still receives more than 20 e-mails a week. The seminar participants have been dubbed the "noble unemployed" in the German press: highly qualified professionals with good severance packages and savings to rely on while they look for work.

"But they have other problems," says Father Loewenstein. "They never expected this would happen to them and ask themselves whether they've wasted their youth away by working so hard. For many of them it was a kind of liberation."

Ms. Lindinger took stock of herself, listing her strengths and weaknesses and laying out strategies to promote the strengths and eliminate weaknesses. In the past, if she sent her résumé around, she would be swamped with offers. Now, few even bother to read her résumé. "There will probably be more changes now than in the past," she says. "Before, you would be rewarded on the basis of your performance. But now I'm at a place where I have to manage my career."

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