A Recent History of the Economy, As Told Through NYT ‘Plan B’ Trend Pieces

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Cupcake-pimpin' ain't easy. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Yesterday the New York Times "Style" section caught up with some bakers and Pilates instructors and party planners who'd recently cast aside their white collars to take up these more creative trades. Was it everything these former professionals had hoped? Well, not exactly: Turns out "Plan B," as the Times calls it, can be just as stressful and time-consuming as corporate law or investment banking, and not nearly as remunerative. "Former white-collar workers are also surprised by the demands of manual labor," the paper tells us, straight-faced. “I feel like a janitor sometimes,” a former commercial bank analyst tells the reporter, who cuts him down one more peg, writing, "At least janitors have a steady paycheck."

So where might all these upwardly mobile people with disposable income and deferred dreams have gotten the idea that they should quit their jobs to start a creative business? They sure sound like New York Times readers: Since the economy took its 2008 downturn, the paper has run at least six articles chewing over the idea of former professionals pursuing a Plan B.

Two months after Lehman brothers filed for bankruptcy, there was "Former bankers turn to a creative plan B." This was a zigzag borne partly of real market forces. As one banker-turned-comic told the paper, "Things look so bad in finance that if you think the difference in salary multiple isn't as big as it used to be between doing what you are viscerally interested in versus a job that's just about money, it puts a whole different spin on it." Things were bad, sure, but not so bad that we couldn't idealize creative pursuits.

Just a few months later, though, in February 2009, things had turned dark. The Times reflected that maybe those sugar-spun Plan B fantasies were a thing of the past. The new Plan B was less fun:


Until our economy went kerflooey, it was a whimsical reverie about the life that you could swap for the one that you were leading. It was a six-room bed-and-breakfast in Vermont that you bought and spruced up and managed into your dotage. Or a record deal, with tour support and 80 percent of the gate. Or some gadget you devised in the basement that was going to be huge.

It took many forms, the old Plan B, but it’s getting harder to conjure up any of them in detail.

Not so hard that they couldn't conjure a few just months later. In June 2009 (and still with no thought for the stress the phrase "Plan B" might provoke in women of childbearing age) the "Style" section bravely asked a reporter to try her hand at a few of the Plan B careers she'd heard bandied about at cocktail parties — canine massage therapist, farmhand, chocolatier. "I started to suspect that Plan B should really be called Plan G," she summarized. "For grind." So you can't say readers weren't warned. But the paper kept running articles about laid-off people who started successful Etsy shops, and the economy kept getting a little better.

We all should have known, really, that things were about to take a turn for the worse when this June the paper ran an article that not only cheerily detailed an incredibly specific trend in Plan Bs (gluten-free baking!), but framed it totally as a choice, not a make-the-best-of-it situation. Gone were the laid-off bankers, replaced by the unfulfilled, authenticity-seeking lawyers the paper also revisited in Sunday's article. It's as if we'd all forgotten, so quickly, the harrowing tale of the reporter who bravely kneaded the tense chests and scruffs of spoiled Jack Russell terriers and golden retrievers. Call me the Nouriel Roubini of trend-piece watchers, but I fear, spurred on by this frothy, 2006-esqueTimes-aided bubble, we're about to see a double-dip spate of darker, sadder Plan B-gone-bad stories.

Maybe It’s Time for Plan C [NYT]