01/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Recession Hits Home

Oops! I got scooped on the news of my own layoff. Willie Brent had it first on his blog, and then my friend Joel Makower reported the story, as part of a blogpost headlined, "Are environmental journalists an endangered species?" He writess:

Just after Thanksgiving, Fortune magazine gave layoff notices to Marc Gunther, one of the leading business writers on corporate environmental practices (whose blogs also appear on, along with Todd Woody, whose coverage of clean technology has led the pack. (Gunther has been asked to stick around as a "contributing writer" and again chair next year's Brainstorm: Green event.)

Joel got it right, as usual. I got the word on Dec. 4, as Time Inc. and Fortune announced their latest round of layoffs, reported to involved 600 positions in all. Why? The economic slump, of course, and an even more drastic downturn in print journalism, which is creating tremendous pressures on editors everywhere. They didn't get into this business to fire people.

No layoff is fun, and the timing of this one stung. I think the environment will become a huge business story, especially post-recession. The Obama administration is ready to regulate, and greenhouse gas controls or taxes, once in place, will have more impact on corporate America than anything -- yes, anything -- that has come out of Washington in years. Influential companies like Wal-Mart and GE are driving sustainability initiatives throughout the global economy. Young people are passionate about green, and they will bring pressures to bear, as consumers and employees. The China and India environmental stories are only getting bigger. I would have enjoyed covering all that for Fortune.

Still, Fortune handled my situation gracefully and so I hope to stay involved with the magazine. I'm biased but I think Fortune is easily the best business mag around. I've loved working there for the past 12 years, with a great group of colleagues. If we can work out the details, I hope to again chair Brainstorm: Green, Fortune's conference about business and the environment and I may well contribute freelance stories to Fortune or I've got one terrific story in the works now.

What, then, lies ahead? I don't know, though a number of intriguing possibilities are emerging, even as I have just begun to look around. I want two things, above all. The first is to work with people I like and whose values I share. The second is to make a difference in the world. Of course, I'd like to work on sustainability (broadly defined) and business; that's where my expertise and my network can best be put to use. Ideally, I'd love to be able to spend some time in the developing world. (Wouldn't it be great if we could find a way to "green" China, India and Africa, while helping to alleviate global poverty?) Beyond that, I'm going to keep an open mind, considering part-time or full-time work in the world of business or NGOs: writing, speaking, consulting. Blogreaders, you can find me at!

(By the way, I realized the other day that I am far more fortunate that most people who are losing their jobs when I came across this eye-popping statistic in Tim Harford's Slate column: "The median job-loser in the United States has $200 [in savings] when he loses his job..." One more reason why we need to restore the value of thrift in America.)

By coincidence, yesterday morning I read the "On Work" column in the Financial Times by Lucy Kellaway, whose writing I enjoy. The headline: "Money, not meaning, is the new secret of happy work."

Kellaway writes:

Over the past decade, the rich, professional classes have developed an increasingly unhealthy attitude to their jobs...We demanded that work be interesting in itself and, even more preposterously, that it should have meaning.

The result of all these demands was, of course, dissatisfaction. We had climbed to the very top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs and discovered that, at the top of the pyramid, the air was very thin indeed....

In the past few months, anguish of this sort has vanished. When one's job is at risk and one's savings are a shadow of their former selves, the search for meaning at work is meaningless.

What a dispiriting thought.

Even as a newly drafted member of what Marx once called "the reserve army of the unemployed," I could not disagree more. Yes, we need to work to feed and house ourselves and our families. But we spend far too many hours a day on the job to settle for work that delivers money without meaning. Indeed, it's the very fact that so many of us want to bring our whole selves to work that will drive business to be more socially and environmentally responsibility. Purpose and profits -- we can have it all.

Unexpectedly, I'm energized by the chance to start a new chapter in my life, and especially by the possibility that I may be able to magnify my impact. Maybe it's time for this reporter-spectator to climb out of the bleachers and get onto the field. We'll soon see.