Your friends keep saying you're one of the lucky ones. The economy has been imploding for months, each new wave of layoffs turning more of your colleagues into nervously grinning "freelance consultants," but you've managed to hold on to the most traditional of arrangements: a corporate job with a desk, a copy machine, medical benefits, and hours of unproductive banter around the coffeemaker. Why is it, then, that you feel as though you're trudging through each day in a vegetative trance? Because, as with many a survivor, the relentless cutbacks have taken a toll on your psyche. "People are in this comatose state," says Chip Conley, the founder and CEO of the Joie de Vivre boutique hotel company, who experienced a similar bout of inertia when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. "Being on life support is an interesting way to look at it—has America become one big ICU?"
The signs of Career Coma bear a striking resemblance to the dejected demeanors of the poor chumps collecting unemployment checks. People start tallying up the weeks of severance they've accrued, dreamily trolling the "JobPounce" page on CareerTiger.com, and whispering to each other about who's getting the next ax. "It's like the brain goes into this fear state," says Judith Gerberg, a New York career counselor. "This little part of the brain actually shuts everything down. People tell me that they're just not as productive. They're spacing out at the window."
"Emotions are contagious in a workplace," Conley says. "Companies have become fear factories. As a result, people don't want to take risks. They don't want to rock the boat. You almost don't want to be noticed, because you sort of feel like you'll be singled out, so you just kind of sulk in the shadows."
Which is, clearly, a boneheaded course of action. Although it may not feel like we're floating in the fizz of a recovery, the turnaround will come one day soon, and when it does, it will boost your bargaining power—presuming you didn't waste the past two years stirring your coffee and curating your iTunes library. Adecco, an international human-resources company, recently released a poll revealing that 54 percent of American workers intend to start truffle-sniffing for a new job as soon as the recession is over. (For employees between 18 and 29, the number was even higher—71 percent.) According to a report released by the business-consulting firm Deloitte in July, bosses are already bracing for this "résumé tsunami." If you've been shouldering the workload of two or three people (like most survivors) and you decide to stay put, you'll be in the perfect position to step into a promotion. There might even be perks—remember those? "Surveyed talent managers and executives are most concerned about losing younger employees from both Generation Y (under age 30) and Generation X (ages 30–44)," the Deloitte report says. "To retain these future leaders, many are considering a mix of retention initiatives, including greater financial incentives and flexible work arrangements." In plain English, that means more money and more time.
"People go into this analysis paralysis and think of all the reasons they shouldn't be looking for another job," says 33-year-old career and life coach Josephine Rotolo. "Yes, there's a lot of stress, and obviously sadness, for people who have lost jobs. But at the same time, a lot of people are taking stock of their lives and reevaluating where they are and where they want to be. The only way to battle fear is to come up with some kind of action plan."
"If you feel that you can't move within your organization because it's in contraction, think about what you can take charge of," Gerberg says. "Volunteer for something. Take on a project. What I've seen over the years is that as soon as I can get people into action, in one place or another, they start feeling better and start giving off energy at work."
As anyone with an appetite for risk suspects, now may be the perfect time to start your own business. One of the most beloved maxims in commerce—"Buy low, sell high"—applies not only to investments in the stock market but also to those in bargain-basement real estate and tech start-ups. "Don't only evaluate the potential downside of action. It is equally important to measure the cost of inaction," says Tim Ferriss, author of the best-selling book The 4-Hour Workweek. "If you don't pursue those things that excite you, where will you be in one year, five years, and ten years? This period of collective panic is your big chance to dabble."
Raj Abhyanker, 34, a Silicon Valley lawyer, launched a website called Patent Express in May. His goal is to streamline the patent process for budding entrepreneurs, and he's banking on a bumper crop, especially in western innovation hubs like Seattle, Portland, and the Bay Area. "When people are unemployed, they have the best ideas, because they get scrappy and think outside the box," he says. "There's a lot more people hanging out in espresso bars chatting about start-ups, and the conversations always revolve around something new, something that they think is going to change the world. I was at Barefoot Coffee Roasters in Santa Clara three days ago, and I was just sitting there waiting for my drink and this guy next to me started telling me about his start-up."
If there's a lesson from the economic pullbacks of the past, it's that at least one of those laptop-and-cappuccino dreamers could wind up creating the next Google—while you, hoarding paper clips in the safety of your air-conditioned cubicle, are doomed to miss out. In 1994, companies like Yahoo!, Netscape, and Amazon.com were gearing up on the launchpad, poised to skyrocket when the Internet went mainstream. "I actually believe this is one of the best times to start a company, because of the discipline that it forces from an operational standpoint," says Brogan Keane, the 43-year-old founder of Fuego Nation, a social-networking site that he recently launched with six employees. "You tend to work with smaller amounts of money. You have people who feel like they're lucky to have any job."
Chip Conley agrees. "There is a really valid and logical argument behind the idea of starting a business during a difficult time," he says. "It's that classic Frank Sinatra if-I-can-make-it-here-I'll-make-it-anywhere thing." During flush times, people often cling to jobs because of the perks, whether that means a plum stock-option package or an endless bacchanal of expense-account lunches; when the perks vanish, Conley says, you're forced to ask yourself "Is this something that I really want to do?" After the market meltdown of 2000 followed by 9/11, Conley found that his Joie de Vivre chain—perched perilously on the West Coast—was in danger of becoming another scrap of venture-capital carnage. Business was way down. The easy California cash that had puffed up the dot-com bubble evaporated overnight. During a random stroll through a Borders, a depressed Conley picked up a copy of a book by Abraham Maslow—the psychologist who came up with the famous "Hierarchy of Needs" pyramid—and decided that he would try to reinvent his company based on Maslow's principles. At the bottom of the pyramid are a person's most basic needs: food, shelter, safety. At the top are the most aspirational longings, the desire for esteem and personal growth. The way Conley saw it, the people who worked at his hotels should feel as though they were getting every part of the pyramid: They weren't just bellboys; they were part of a mission. It might sound like a lot of Haight-Ashbury hokum, except that it kind of worked. "In the last downturn, I could've hunkered down and said, 'Okay, it's all about lowest common denominator. Let's just get through this,'" Conley says. "Instead, I said, 'Well, let's try something new. Let's look at this Maslow stuff.' Between 2001 and 2005, we tripled in size. We got a lot of wisdom out of it—at a time when we were frankly left for dead on the side of the road."
Ironically, the next boom will likely be driven by the unlucky chumps, guys in search of a break like Conley was. "The economy will not reboot with our human capital slogging off to jobs that don't tap into people's creativity and energy," says Po Bronson, author of "We have to innovate ourselves out of this mess." In other words, snap out of it. You've got nothing to lose but that stash of paper clips.