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Life after downsizing

For journalist Barbara Rudolph, the process of researching her first book underscored the importance of an easy-to-overlook reporting skill.


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"It seems obvious," the New York-based writer says. "Still, people don't always do it."

For Ms. Rudolph, listening was often the only thing she could do. Especially when one of her book's subjects was faced with the loss of his children to divorce and his house to the bank.

In fact, listening was paramount throughout her work on "Disconnected" (Free Press, 1998), a story about the changing relationship between work and identity in America as seen through the lives of six people left jobless by major downsizing at AT&T in 1994 and 1996.

If you're imagining a depressing treatise on the economics of downsizing, don't flip the page yet.

Sitting in a Manhattan cafe, just a few blocks from the public library where she wrote the book, Rudolph leans forward excitedly as she explains her rationale for choosing to study America's work culture.

"What I was writing about is the sensibility and spirit of the new workplace," she says. "It's one of contingency.... Downsizing is business as usual."

"I was very interested by the connection between who we are and what we do. And here are six people who had to redefine that connection for themselves," she adds.

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Rudolph hadn't been through a downsizing herself when she settled on the topic, but her career as a business writer for publications like Time and Forbes afforded her the necessary background to tackle the subject.

For the book, though, she deliberately chose to reject the typical approach to the medium.

"I read the general literature, and the approach of most business book authors is to write from the perspective of the leaders of an organization," she says. "I'm looking at things from the ground up. I wanted to write about people."

From the time she sat down with an editor in the spring of 1995 to the final draft, her goal was to write an intimate, emotional business book - "a business book for everyman."

In order to do it, Rudolph went to AT&T. The telecommunications giant had downsized several times in the early 1990s, firing a record 40,000 employees in a company-wide squeeze in early 1996. There, she searched out her protagonists - people left jobless by the reorganization.

"I chose AT&T because I knew that they had been through waves of layoffs, and it's an extreme example of the economic forces at work and the company attachment that people have," she says.

Rudolph points out that forces like technology and economic globalization have fueled rapid changes in the workplace. The potential for sweeping layoffs is an accepted reality. "Downsizing" has become as natural a part of the 1990s American lexicon as Web-surfing

"It's not big front-page headlines anymore," she says. "But I was asking, 'What does this mean for an individual person emotionally?' "

She interviewed dozens of people, finally settling on three men and three women - all baby boomers and representing different divisions within the company.

"I started out thinking I had to find a 26 year-old," Rudolph says. "But then I realized that the Generation X career expectations are very different from the baby boomer. It's the baby boomers where the feeling of the change from the old working world to the new is most intense."

Once she had her cast in place, Rudolph set to work. She spent time with their families, friends, and colleagues and made frequent visits to their homes.

Here, Rudolph took an unusual tack. She not only examined the emotional repercussions of downsizing, but also chronicled their lives from childhood, blending family relationships, personal quirks, and insecurities into the mix.

"I did that because I wanted the full story," she says, explaining why each chapter reads like a mini-biography. "Here's this person, and here's where he came from, and here's how he was shaped by his family history. How can you write about somebody's life without that?"

She shrugs when asked why her six contributors were so generous with their time and lives. "I'm not sure," she says. "I think it was that they all came out the other side, and it was a desire to share what they'd learned."

But the approach also resulted in an emotional connection with each individual.

Objectivity was not an option.

"I never wanted the book to be academic or objective. I wanted it to be emotional," she says. "It's still factual, and it's important that these are real people and real names, which is unusual for this kind of book where often identities are disguised."

In the end, Rudolph feels she accomplished her goal. "I was hoping to target the average American reader," she says.

So now that she's finished one book, would she do it again? Rudolph casts her eyes down and says with a just a hint of longing, "Oh, I want to. But there's not one yet."

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