If any further evidence were needed that the 1990s are going to be different, it is available right here in the Washington-area economy. "Recession-proof" Washington seems to be heading into a recession and, just like Pittsburgh, Detroit and all those gritty places outside the Beltway, we are having layoffs.
To steelworkers and oil-field riggers and others who saw livelihoods evaporate in the 1970s and 1980s while government continued to thrive, this may look like poetic justice.
But to the folks who suddenly find themselves without jobs, it seems neither poetic nor just. For most of these newly unemployed, the situation is truly desperate, touching off a frantic race to find another job before all they have worked for -- house, car and savings -- are wiped out.
For most people, only a new job can really save them. But there are some things a person can do to buy time, to stave off the inevitable just a bit longer, while they try to land a post that will get them back on their feet.
"The first thing," said Mary A. Malgoire of Malgoire Drucker Inc. in Bethesda, financial planners, "is to get a handle on what your fixed and variable expenses are." In other words, what has it been costing you to live and what can you do without?
"Be realistic," Malgoire cautioned. For example, cold weather is coming, bringing higher fuel bills. Don't use your October gas bill to figure your heating costs, use last December's. And if you use oil, take the number of gallons from last year, but use this year's prices.
The idea is to figure out the minimum number of dollars you need to get you through each month.
The next step is to examine your assets. Did you get any severance pay? Do you have any savings or any assets to sell?
Now divide your monthly expenses into your assets. That's the number of months you can survive without new income. Grim, isn't it?
Financial planners like to advise clients to keep enough cash on hand to pay three or six months worth of living expenses, but many people can't and others won't. Only when layoffs strike does it become clear why such a cash hoard is desirable.
So, what to do?
"The income side, the expense side and the rate of return side -- those are the only ways" you have to go, Malgoire said.
On the income side, turn first to your employer. If you are still on the payroll, try to negotiate the best severance package you can get.
Said Jack Porter of the accounting firm of BDO Seidman here: "Do that as soon as possible, while you can still take advantage of the employer's guilt."
Most employers dislike letting people go and will be inclined to help if they can, Porter said. Other topics you should examine include:
Job-hunting assistance. Some companies offer "outplacement" services, and if yours does, take advantage of it. If not, see if you can use company office space and phones at least for a while to help in the job hunt.
Help with health insurance. The company is required by law to let you keep your health insurance coverage, but you have to pay the premiums. Ask if the firm can pick up this tab for a few months.
Retirement plans. Many companies have defined-contribution pension plans, such as a 401(k) plan. Employees who leave a firm can receive a lump sum distribution from such a plan. Under normal circumstances they are advised to roll this money over into an individual retirement account so that it can continue growing on a tax-deferred basis. You can simply keep the money, but you have to pay all the taxes plus a 10 percent penalty, so avoid doing that if you can.
However, Scott Peterson, a pension expert with the Rowayton, Conn., office of Hewitt Associates, a benefits consulting firm, said that some 401(k) plans contain money on which you have already paid taxes, and that can be withdrawn without penalty or additional tax. He also said that withdrawals are permitted from individual retirement accounts, albeit with taxes and penalties, so a layoff victim could roll the whole amount over and then make withdrawals as necessary.
The advantage of this is that it doesn't wipe out your retirement savings all at once. If you get a new job, what you haven't spent is still there and can resume its role as retirement savings.
Peterson suggested talking with your company's benefits office, which should be able to give you a good accounting of your funds, spelling out what is taxable and what is not.
One the spending side, cut all non-essential costs. Conserve cash by paying the minimum on bills each month, while trying not to add to the balance. Little things help. If you're out job hunting, take lunch from home. As cash gets tighter, delay paying as long as you can.
If you have investments, examine ways to make them generate more cash. If you have tax-exempt bonds, consider swapping them for taxable bonds. Take in a roommate or a tenant, if you can.
"The ways of creating income are endless," Malgoire said, and in a time like this, none of them, at least none of the legal ones, should be ignored.
Finally, if you can't pay, talk to your creditors. Tell them your problem and see if they can work out a payment plan with you. Many will. Their goal is to get their money, and if "working something out" is the only way they'll get it, then they usually are willing to do that.