Downward mobility: I finally understood the meaning when I advertised for a personal assistant on an online San Francisco bulletin board and received an application from the CEO of a new-media start-up who said he was experiencing 'cashflow issues'.
The fall from grace of the dot.com generation has been as gut-wrenching as the collapse of the Nasdaq stock index. In 1999, a junior consultant fluent in web jargon could play off half a dozen job offers and walk into a salary of dollars 70,000 at a start-up; now he must explain away his dot.com experience like an embarrassing gap in the CV.
The dreams of the dot.com generation are not the first to be shattered. But exuberant investors and a credulous press lifted the dot.com generation so high. Its expectations will adjust slowly, and painfully.
Losing one's job - or one's firm - is sometimes compared with the sequence of emotions at a death: denial, anger, depression, acceptance. In the internet economy, the stations are: vacation, unemployment, flight and resignation.
First, vacation: a reasonable choice for a internet worker given a few months' severance pay, after years of 80-hour weeks and only a fortnight's annual leave. Silicon Valley acquaintances of mine are variously in Nepal, New Zealand and the Rockies. But a long vacation is often also a denial of economic reality: these people won't find new jobs nearly as lucrative or interesting as they have come to expect; and they are delaying the moment of reckoning.
Second, unemployment, which in Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley, has more than quadrupled in a year. Among CEOs in the US, more than 1,000 lost their jobs in 2000. For some, it's a pleasant option. Marleen McDaniel, former CEO of Women.com, invests in the stock market and says she is 'happily unemployed'. Less happy are the 30 unemployed tech workers among 100 men at InnVision shelters in San Jose.
Third, flight; here the pursuit of an alternative career in which success has a different scale. The classic move is a business administration course, timed to spit the freshly minted MBA out into a recovering economy. Applications for the Peace Corps, the last resort of the newly graduated and retired, are also way up. And, since 11 September, there's another option. One particularly canny former employee has decided his country needs him, and has applied for naval intelligence.
Finally, the point most people reach: resignation, and a return to the comfortable embrace of the traditional corporation.
The dot.com generation is not entirely lost. The technology sector triggered the downturn, but it is also likely to lead the recovery. Silicon Valley has always maintained that recessions encourage innovation, because software engineers have time on their hands. And there is value in the experience of running a major business, even the experience of running a business into the ground.
George Bell, former CEO of Excite@Home, one of the most spectacularly bankrupt of internet companies, told TheStreet.com: 'I know that I am 100 times better equipped to be a CEO. There's no way, even in a 10-year period, I could have gotten that kind of experience in any other environment.'
Nevertheless, many internet veterans have far to fall. At the peak, headhunters were conducting up to 1,000 open CEO searches for internet companies. They now concede that successful candidates often received the equivalent of battlefield promotions, becoming CEOs through default rather than talent. Some of these may have to take not one but two steps down.
Jim Citrin, managing director at Spencer Stuart, the executive recruitment firm, advises humility but has his doubts. 'The biggest and toughest question for most former CEOs is simply: are you willing to go backward? Once you're at the top of an organisation it can be tough, mentally, to swing to a lower rung. It just doesn't feel right.' Some more brutal recruiters describe the spoiled and over-promoted dot.commers as a new unemployable class.
But spare a moment for web designers, the workers of the internet revolution, who can less easily flee to another industry. A recent focus of their despair: an ad that demanded knowledge of a range of programming languages, and offered as little as dollars 12 an hour. The product was a porn site. And the company received too many resumes to deal with.
One of San Francisco's leading web designers had been reading The Victorian Internet, a history of the telegraph. 'The heyday of the telegrapher as a highly paid, highly skilled information worker was over; telegraphers' brief tenure as members of an elite community with mastery over a miraculous, cutting-edge technology had come to an end. As the 20th century dawned, the telegraph's inventors had died, its community had crumbled, and its golden age had ended.' As he commented: boy, that sounds familiar.