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[whitespace] Retire?

Even for the young, it's not as much fun as it's cracked up to be

By Annalee Newitz

I TOOK A BREAK from thinking about unionizing dotcoms this week--but don't worry, I'll get back to it. This was one of those weeks where I wanted to take a break from everything, including having a brain that's reality-compatible.

I feel like I'm surrounded by free-floating economic anxiety. Part of this, no doubt, is coming from the fact that I'm obsessively reading about electricity shortages, Internet industry layoffs and the early stages of union-busting at Amazon.com. But part of it is because I'm not just reading about it. Many of my friends have been laid off from their dotcom jobs, or been demoted, or had their salaries slashed. People who would have turned up their noses at a 50K annual income last year are now scrabbling to get less than that by contracting, freelancing and hustling.

Meanwhile, Charles and I managed to work ourselves into a paranoid froth over our nonexistent retirement funds. I have a grand total of 500 bucks in my IRA, which I just opened last year. Charles puts a trivial amount of cash into his retirement account per year. Both of us have friends--still shakily employed in various dotcom jobs--who pack over $1,500 per month into their company's lucrative 401K plans, but Charles and I (both born in the fine year 1969) are planning our lives with the idea that we'll never be able to retire.

We realized that we would probably be retiring into poverty if we stopped working. "Think about it," I said darkly, "we won't have any Social Security or Medicare. We're writers, and we haven't really made enough money to save up for a nice house or health care. We'll be living in a trailer in Montana." Charles began speculating about the environment: "And we'll have skimmed off the ozone layer, and the planet will be getting hotter, and everyone will be cancer-ridden." I finished up for him: "And since we'll have no health care, and we'll be old, we'll be the ones full of cancer who have to keep working until we die."

Charles started making plans for how we'd begin saving money and put more cash into our IRAs. And I shrugged off his suggestions--for a utopian, I can be pretty fatalistic. I have hope for the distant future, but not the immediate one. I guess I get that from watching too much Star Trek, where the 21st and 22nd centuries are represented as a post-apocalyptic Middle Ages, complete with witch hunts and impoverished peasants and crazed monarchs.

Needless to say, I was in a pretty foul mood when Ed invited me to the Collabnet holiday party at San Francisco's swanky new bobo bar, Sno Drift. What the hell, I thought to myself. Maybe I'd never be able to retire, but at least I'd have high-tech company parties to keep me drunk in the meantime. Besides, Collabnet is one of those groovy new open source companies whose exploits I'd been following in the news. They're fighting the good fight, bringing Linux to places like Sun, a corporate giant famous for its investment in proprietary software.

After Ed had fussed over his outfit for what seemed to be a 24-hour period he and I and Jesse headed out to schmooze and booze with the open-source geeks. "Will there be engineers there?" I asked Ed fretfully, fearing a party full of marketing types whose jobs I couldn't fathom. "I think so," Ed responded unhelpfully.

As soon as we walked in the door, it was clear that Collabnet doesn't just represent the future of software production. It also represents the future of Internet companies generally, with their "corrected" expectations about the economic future in the wake of the NASDAQ dip and VC pullout. Unlike one of those notorious, psychotically expensive dotcom parties with servants bearing champagne or shucking mounds of raw oysters onto tubs of ice, this dotnet shindig looked like your standard-issue office party. Sure, there were DJs (including the ravishing Laura, spouse of Collabnet CTO and Apache poster-boy Brian), and chocolate delicacies to eat and free drinks. But it wasn't opulent by any means.

It felt like a genuine San Francisco party, not some kind of Hollywood recreation of Caligula's Rome. Even Last Gasp honcho Ron Turner came with his retinue, promptly charming everyone into not asking how he'd found out about the party. And Susie was there, talking to a cute boy named Dan, who revealed to me later that he owns the URL milk.com. I even got to bond with the dashing engineer Manoj, who confessed that he would rather not code for users, or clients, or even for hardware. "Actually, I think I should just be pure energy," he proclaimed grandly. "Then I could code from within the pattern buffer of a transporter device." My kind of geek.

As we left the party, I allowed myself to wonder, hopefully, if someday things might be normal again--no more economic bubbles and real estate bubbles, accompanied by endless layoffs and evictions. Then I went to bed and dreamed all night about spaceships.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who agrees with Paul that writers never retire. She's at [email protected].

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From the December 14-20, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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