NEW YORK – The bar was crowded with well-dressed professionals enjoying drinks and conversation, a typical evening -- except that many of them had no job.
The event was a Wall Street Pink Slip Party, where the unemployed mix with recruiters and curious bystanders to network, look for work, and share their stories.
With employers shedding 600,000 more jobs in January, the undercurrent at this party in a Manhattan bar was decidedly glum.
"Wall Street, directly or indirectly, has ruined the best 10 years of my life," said Susan Lange, speaking of colleagues and friends she lost on Sept. 11, 2001, and the sense now, after being laid off from her job as an AIG training manager, that her world has again turned on its head.
"I'm devastated," the 39-year-old woman said.
Figures released Friday showed that the unemployment rate hit 7.6 in January, a month with more layoffs than at any other time since 1974.
Jobseekers are gathering in bars, delving into the business networking Web site LinkedIn, waiting in lines at city help centers, and even starting up hopeful conversations with prosperous-looking strangers on commuter trains -- all in the hope of landing jobs in what seems to be a shrinking pool of opportunity.
"Places have hiring freezes. And they have cutbacks. And they have layoffs. There are a lot more people in the job market," said 32-year-old Ana Arrendell, who has been searching for work since August.
At first, she was looking only for a job in her field, graphic design. But as the months have gone by, Arrendell has lowered her expectations. "Right now, I'll take anything," she said Friday as she left a New York City-run office that offers resume-writing assistance and interview training.
Already having given up hope for a Wall Street job making $80,000 per year right out of college, recent graduate David Gunther is getting creative as he tries to expand his business network.
The 23-year-old has begun hanging around commuter ferries and suburban trains, chatting up professional-looking types traveling to areas where executives live. Recently, at an electronica concert -- a wildly different atmosphere than at the career services office at his university -- he talked to some fans who introduced him to an entertainment-industry manager. Now he's preparing for a job interview with the man.
Gunther isn't the only one looking for new ways to meet people. Among the groups using the networking service Meetup, the NYC Job Seekers & Career Strategy group has more than doubled in size to 454 people since September, with more than 95 joining since the first of the year. Worldwide, Meetup has seen a boom in career-related groups; more than 2,000 were started in January, compared to about 500 a month over the summer, said spokesman Andres Glusman.
Chandlee Bryan, a resume writer and career coach who acts as facilitator for the New York group, says she has seen it transform. Initially, people attending the meetings were pondering a career switch out of a desire for something new. Now, participants in talks on online networking and interviewing techniques are more often being forced into the hunt, either because they've been laid off or because they believe they might be.
Bryan says the meetings help people fight off the solitude that comes with being jobless.
"There's a great deal of isolation," she said. "That complicates the process and makes it harder, given that the majority of people find their jobs through networking."
That's the point of the Wall Street Pink Slip Party -- modeled after similar events held following the dot-com bust. Since the reincarnation was launched in November, the intensity at the parties is increasing, says organizer Rachel Pine.
The first event drew a mix of people, only a quarter of them laid off. By the Feb. 4 event, 85 to 90 percent of the 400 people were looking for work.
The scene at the bustling Public House bar on Wednesday night was varied, as men and women in a mix of suits and corporate casual wear -- and pink glow-in-the-dark wristbands that marked them as jobseekers -- homed in on recruiters wearing green wristbands.
Some were approaching their job search with equanimity, figuring they could rely on savings socked away during the flush years. Others seemed more desperate, counting their change after paying for the coat check. Some, drink in hand, sounded almost bitter about their personal economic downturn.
Andrea Bouwman recounted watching the Super Bowl with a growing sense of ire, as she saw the millions of dollars that her former employer PepsiCo had spent on advertising instead of salaries.
"They kind of compromised people for the actual advertising," said the former marketing manager, adding that since she got her pink slip she's been drinking only Coca-Cola.
Options are more limited back at the city employment center in Brooklyn, where 43-year-old Desmond Moulton, who held jobs as a retail salesman, recounts months of dashed hopes.
Most recently he returned to the job placement center, only to see a once-enthusiastic counselor turn somber as she studied his prospects.
"She clearly wanted to help me. She clearly wanted to have some good news to give me," he said. "But she had none."