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Generation Hexed

They’re qualified, even overqualified. They’re talented. And they’ve been laid off—some three or four times. As industries with hipster cred—music, fashion, publishing—winnow their ranks, young, creative New Yorkers are wondering if the jobs they moved to the city for have disappeared forever.

Everyday I write the book: Arye Dworken performs his daily ritual-- writing at his local Starbucks.  

Arye Dworken has theories for just about everything. He has theories about the likelihood of a double-dip recession, about whether we’re witnessing the demise of industries like publishing and the music business. And if you’re inclined to ask, Dworken will also share his theories about proper gift-giving or constructing the perfect mix tape.

This is what happens when you’ve been laid off from three jobs in two years.

Dworken, 27, a freelance journalist and ad copywriter, is sharing one of his theories with me on a cold, blustery afternoon in February outside the Virgin Megastore in Times Square. “I’ve been thinking a lot about karma lately,” says Dworken, a diminutive guy with a scruffy beard and a nebbishy New York accent who is dressed in a black North Face ski jacket, blue jeans, and Nike high-tops. “I think there’s a reason that certain people get to the top.” And that is? “Good karma, not making people unhappy, being appreciative.”

Before I can debate this highly suspect theory, Dworken dashes off into the Virgin Megastore. The goal: find a present for Sarah, a Spin editor who helped Dworken to write a series of short pieces about musicians with day jobs. But perusing the new releases, Dworken quickly becomes frustrated. “What do you get someone at a music magazine who gets promos?” he asks. He picks up a CD by Zwan, ex–Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan’s new band. “I’m sure she has this,” Dworken says. He lets out an exasperated sigh, and then there is a theory: “When you’re unemployed, choosing gifts means so much more. I mean, every decision takes on this huge significance because you have so much time to make it.”

Dworken’s been laid off from positions at the Oxygen network, an ad agency that he’d rather not name, and, most recently, HBO. Each layoff had its own special misery, but the ad agency took the cake. “About 60 employees, including me, were brought into the company cafeteria,” Dworken explains, “and the CEO said, ‘We would’ve liked to lay you off individually, but that would have taken too much time.’ ”

Temp jobs—and the occasional freelance piece for magazines like Spin—have helped Dworken pay the bills on the four-bedroom apartment he shares with three roommates uptown. But even menial temp jobs—such as working in the basement of Sports Illustrated, bar-coding old photo negatives—have been hard to come by. And forget about jobs in industries that Dworken would like to work in, all of which, he says, feel impossibly out of reach. “The response is ‘Great résumé, we’d love to have you, but we have 400 résumés.’ Sometimes I feel like I have a better chance of becoming the CEO of Lehman Brothers,” he adds, “than getting some of the jobs I apply for.”

Arye Dworken is idiosyncratic enough to be a character from that defining cultural artifact of our last recession, Slacker. But somehow this economic downturn isn’t very funny. It isn’t just the looming war with Iraq (1991 had that, too). It’s the industries on life support—music, publishing, the Internet, take your pick—that cloud much of the optimism for the young and unemployed in New York. These are the jobs that shape our sense of possibility, our sense that what we’re doing can be done here and only here. And they’re fast disappearing from the city’s landscape.

“My mother calls them MTV jobs,” says 28-year-old music journalist Miranda Jane. “Jobs in the music business, publishing—these are the jobs that everyone wants. These are the jobs that thousands of people from all around the world come to New York for.” Jane should know: She moved to New York in January 2000 to take a senior-editor position at hip-hop magazine Complex, only to be laid off in August 2002.

Getting back one of those MTV jobs is proving to be more difficult than Jane ever imagined. “It’s shocking,” she says. “I’ve sent out hundreds of résumés, and I’ve only gotten one interview.” She’s far from alone. “Whenever I go down to the unemployment office,” Jane says, “I notice that a lot of people seem to be in the media.”

Jane is biding her time—and paying rent on her Williamsburg studio apartment—with freelance publicity jobs. “I’ve thrown morals and taste by the wayside,” she says with a laugh. “Right now I’m representing a hip-hop-porno DVD.”

The past few months in particular—which have been marked by everything from a broken laptop to a job at another hip-hop magazine that seemed to be hers but then went to an employee inside the company—have caused Jane to reexamine her career aspirations. “At this point, I feel like my focus on music or music journalism is hurting me,” she says. “The sense I get is that magazines will follow the trend of record labels. There will be fewer and fewer of them, and the staffs will become smaller and smaller.”

“A lot of things are happening at once: the economy, the war, all of these industries in flux,” agrees Lisa Garrett, a 29-year-old who is pursuing a career in the music business. Since moving to New York in 1997, Garrett has worked for—and been laid off from—defunct Avenue A rock club Brownie’s, independent rock label Matador Records, and downtown record store Other Music. “I think change is good in the end,” Garrett says. “It challenges people, makes them more creative. But I have a feeling that when things come back, they won’t come back in the same way.”