Politics

Tech Layoffs Shock Young Workers. The Older People? Not So Much.

When Lyft laid off 13 percent of its workers in November, Kelly Chang was shocked to find herself among the 700 people who lost their jobs at the San Francisco company.

“It seemed like tech companies had so much opportunity,” said Ms. Chang, 26. “If you got a job, you made it. It was a sustainable path.”

Brian Pulliam, on the other hand, brushed off the news that the crypto exchange Coinbase was eliminating his job. Ever since the 48-year-old engineer was laid off from his first job at the video game company Atari in 2003, he said that he has asked himself once a year: “If I were laid off, what would I do?”

The contrast between Ms. Chang’s and Mr. Pulliam’s reactions to their respective professional letdowns speaks to a generational divide that is becoming more clear as the tech industry, which expanded rapidly through the pandemic, swings toward mass layoffs.

Earlier this week, Microsoft said it planned to cut 10,000 jobs, or roughly 5 percent of its work force. And on Friday morning, Google’s parent company Alphabet said it planned to cut 12,000 jobs, or about 6 percent of its worker total. Their cuts follow big layoffs at other tech companies like Meta, Amazon and Salesforce.

Millennials and Generation Z, born between 1981 and 2012, started tech careers during a decade-long expansion when jobs multiplied as fast as iPhone sales. The companies they joined were conquering the world and defying economic rules. And when they went to work at outfits that offered bus rides to the office and amenities like free food and laundry, they weren’t just taking on a new job, they were taking on a lifestyle. Few of them had experienced widespread layoffs.

Baby boomers and members of Generation X, born between 1946 and 1980, on the other hand, lived through the biggest contraction the industry has ever seen. The dot-com crash of the early 2000s eliminated more than one million jobs, emptying Silicon Valley’s Highway 101 of commuters as many companies folded overnight.

“It was a blood bath and it went on for years,” said Jason DeMorrow, a software engineer who was laid off twice in 18 months and was out of work for more than six months. “As concerning as the current downturn is, and as much as I empathize with the people impacted, there’s no comparison.”

Tech’s generational divide is representative of a broader phenomenon. The year someone is born has a big influence on views about work and money. Early personal experiences strongly determine a person’s appetite for financial risk, according to a 2011 study by the economists Ulrike Malmendier of the University of California, Berkeley and Stefan Nagel of the University of Chicago.

The study, which analyzed the Federal Reserves’ Survey of Consumer Finances from 1960 to 2007, found that people who came of age in the 1970s when the stock market stagnated were reluctant to invest in the early 1980s when it roared. That trend reversed in the 1990s.

The State of Jobs in the United States

Economists have been surprised by recent strength in the labor market, as the Federal Reserve tries to engineer a slowdown and tame inflation.

  • Infrastructure Money: Government spending on initiatives intended to combat climate change and rebuild infrastructure are expected to land this year. The effects on the labor market will be deep but hard to measure.
  • Noncompete Agreements: A sweeping proposal by the Federal Trade Commission would block companies from limiting their employees’ ability to work for a rival.
  • Restaurant Workers: Mandatory $15 food-safety classes are turning cooks, waiters and bartenders into unwitting funders of a lobbying campaign against minimum wage increases.
  • Switching Jobs: A hallmark of the pandemic era has been the surge in employee turnover. The wave of job-switching may be taking a toll on productivity.

Once you experience your first crash, things change,” Professor Nagel said. “You realize bad stuff happens and maybe you should be a bit more cautious.”

For Gen X, the dot-com collapse hit early in their careers. From 2001 to 2005, the tech sector shed a quarter of its workers, according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by CompTIA, a technology education and research organization.

The layoffs that swept the industry were worse than the recession of the early 1990s, when total jobs in the tech sector fell by 5 percent, and the global financial crisis that followed in 2008, when the work force contracted by 6 percent.

When Brian Pulliam lost his job at Coinbase, he saw it as an opportunity to start his own company.Credit…Meron Tekie Menghistab for The New York Times

In 2011, the tech sector began a hiring boom that would last a decade. It added an average of more than 100,000 jobs annually, and by 2021, it had recouped all the jobs it lost when the dot-com bubble burst.

The job figures account for software, hardware, tech services and telecommunications companies, including Apple, Meta, Nvidia, Salesforce and others. But they may exclude some tech-related companies such as Airbnb, Lyft and Uber because of ambiguity in government labor market reporting that classifies some businesses as consumer services, said Tim Herbert, chief research officer at CompTIA.

The biggest job increases in tech came after the pandemic started, as companies rushed to fulfill surging demand. In 2022, the sector added nearly 260,000 jobs, according to CompTIA, the most it had added in a single year since 2000.

Tech’s job increases continued last year even as big layoffs started, though it is unclear if that trend has stretched into this year. New job opportunities contributed to nearly 80 percent of laid-off tech workers saying that they found a new job within three months, according to a survey by ZipRecruiter.

“We’re seeing the hiring mania of the pandemic being corrected for — not the popping of a bubble,” said Andy Challenger, senior vice president of the career transition firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Last fall, David Hayden, a program manager with a doctorate in physics, learned from his manager that he would be let go from nLight, a semiconductor company. Worried about how he would pay his eldest daughter’s college tuition, he immediately reached out to recruiters to line up interviews. In December, a month after being let go, he started a new position at Lattice Semiconductor.

In each interview, Mr. Hayden, 56, said that he volunteered that he had been laid off. His experience during the dot-com crash, when he avoided layoffs even as talented colleagues were let go, taught him that cuts aren’t always rational.

“The shame of being laid off is gone,” said Mr. Hayden, 56. “Companies know that a lot of good people are being let go right now.”

For Mr. Pulliam, losing his job at Coinbase was an opportunity. He funneled his severance money from Coinbase into his own business, a career coaching service for software engineers called Refactor.

“This is a gift,” Mr. Pulliam said. “I don’t think that story is told. It’s always doom and gloom.”

But for tech workers experiencing their first economic downturn, the cuts have been eye opening. Ms. Chang had studied product design in college with an eye toward joining a tech industry that seemed recession proof. Getting laid off from Lyft shook that faith.

Erin Sumner, a software recruiter at Facebook’s parent company Meta, used to brag to potential hires that the company had been the fastest ever to be valued at $1 trillion. She said that she would promote the company’s strengths, even last year as its stock price tumbled and its core business, digital advertising, struggled.

When rumors of layoffs began to circulate last year, she assured colleagues that their jobs were safe, pointing to the more than $40 billion in cash the company had in the bank. But in November, she was among 11,000 workers laid off.

“It was gut-wrenching,” said Ms. Sumner, 32. She has managed to find a new job as the head recruiter for a start-up called DeleteMe, which aims to remove customer’s information from search results. But she said she cringes each time she reads about more tech layoffs.

“I fear it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Ms. Sumner said. “There’s no guarantee. I got laid off by the most secure company in the world.”

A similar reversal of fortune has challenged businesses selling software services. Shares of Salesforce, an industry leader, fell nearly 50 percent last year as its sales growth slowed. The company had splurged during the pandemic, spending $28 billion to buy Slack Technologies. It swelled to 80,000 employees from 49,000 in two years.

During an all-hands meeting last week to discuss the company’s decision to lay off 10 percent of its workers, Marc Benioff, the company’s chief executive, tried to sympathize with his unhappy staff by putting the cuts in context.

“I’ve been through a lot of difficult times in this company. Every loss reawakens another loss for me,” he said, according to a recording of the call heard by The New York Times. “Obviously, we’re talking about a layoff. I think about employees who have died. I think about people we’ve lost that we never wanted to lose.”

Asked what advice he had for employees who were anxious about the state of the company and further layoffs, Mr. Benioff suggested “gratitude.”

Austin Bedford learned that he was one of about 8,000 people being let go from Salesforce when he tried to log on to his computer and couldn’t access Slack, the tool that he worked on as a conversation designer. A native of East Palo Alto, Calif., he studied computer design because he hoped to join one of profitable companies in his backyard. The job he landed at the company in 2021 fulfilled a dream. He never imagined he would lose it so soon.

“I was shocked,” said Mr. Bedford, 41.

Though disappointed that he was laid off, he said that he was trying to view being out of work as a “blessing in disguise” and intended to be selective about what job he took next.

“There’s something bright around the corner,” Mr. Bedford said. “I just need to have faith.”

Kellen Browning and David Yaffe-Bellany contributed reporting.

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