Our Take: Package-Envy

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As my nearly empty train pulled into the terminal the other night, snippets of a conversation floated my way. Over the rails' gentle rumble, one word made my ears perk up: "package." Then came a full sentence: "You can negotiate your package."

I'd happened upon a friendly discussion between two women recently laid off by Citigroup, though it wouldn't be right to call them layoff "victims." Rather than aggrieved or anxious, both exuded calm, even contentment. One had worked at Citi for 35 years, in a function currently in demand at most financial institutions. But upon seeing my eFinancialCareers card, she said she didn't plan to "start looking" for at least a year - if ever.

Just days earlier, another newly unemployed professional had told me she got a "great package." That prompted a snide comment from one eFC user recently let go by Citi.

Welcome to the era of "package-envy"!

Topsy-Turvy World

In good times, people boast of (and sometimes judge their self-worth by) the gaudy price appreciation of their homes and the returns on their stock portfolios. These days, bragging rights seem to revolve around the size of one's severance package.

Personally, I've been on both sides of the divide. In my inaugural layoff more than a decade ago, I got the best of both worlds: a great package, and a quick and surprisingly painless transition to a new employer. But in the months after my most recent layoff, I saw less of my family than I had while employed. For both economic and personal reasons, I subordinated all else to the goal of returning to action as soon as humanly possible. The additional years under my belt, however, had made me all but unemployable in finance. Should history repeat itself, I'd be even worse off this time.

Stacking up packages instead of bonuses isn't the only thing that feels topsy-turvy these days. Government work, which most Wall Streeters viewed as a black mark until quite recently, is suddenly respectable. Even teaching school is starting to look like a smart career choice - and not only during the summer. Last October, while the global banking system's survival twisted in the wind, a postal worker entered an elevator alongside me and I blurted out: "You'll still have a job six months from now!" When he smiled, I went on: "This is probably the first time in your life that people look at your uniform and envy you."

Is a Biblical leveling under way? Or, Heaven forbid, a Marxian one?

How to Get Used to It

Whatever you label it, this new era could persist for a very long time. Citing an NYU professor's analysis of finance professionals' historical pay relative to other professions, New York State labor economist James Brown predicts Wall Street compensation will stagnate compared with other professions for at least a decade.

To avoid despair, you need a sense of self-worth that rests on more than your paycheck. That requires having a thorough grounding in not just the economic value you carry to prospective employers, but the spiritual and personal values you embody as a human being.

If nevertheless you find yourself envying an acquaintance's package, bonus or lifestyle, consider this: Widespread envy poses a major challenge to the Obama administration's plans to revive the economy. Professional agitators like Maureen Dowd and Gretchen Morgenson are doing their best to elevate the politics of envy into America's national pastime. If we in finance descend to drawing moral judgments on others using our own income or wealth as our main yardstick, we'll be as bad as those two New York Times pundits.

Well, maybe not quite as bad. One media expert (who has no specific knowledge of their contracts) estimates Dowd earns at least $350,000 in base salary alone, and Morgenson earns at least $250,000. That's higher than many of the bankers they rail against. (Asked for comment, New York Times spokesman Diane McNulty replied via e-mail, "What would make you think that a third party could have any reliable information on this issue?")

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