The boom times of the '90s were not just an economic story; they changed the lives of families too. Dads jetted around the country, moms could afford to give up their jobs, and families everywhere dreamed about new diplomas and big promotions. But family life was transformed again when the current slowdown began in March 2001. Two million Americans lost their jobs, while others saw their paychecks shrink. How is the changed economy affecting their emotional welfare? "Money is the physical manifestation of who you are. It defines you," says certified financial planner and best-selling personal-finance author Suze Orman. "When you lose it, you lose part of yourself." That may be true, but an economic setback can also give families an opportunity to figure out what really matters in their lives. And some are finding that there can be upsides to the downturn.
PUTTING FAMILY FIRST
David Wu's career thrived in the '90s. In just three years, he went from being a mid-level performance analyst in Washington to being a general manager for Allied Signal (now Honeywell) in Shanghai. The management job came with a mid-six-figure income, but it also required David, 45, to travel almost constantly, averaging 80 hours a month on planes. In 1995 David, his wife Elly, now 42, and their three children, Letitia, 14, Lawrence, 12, and Lennifer, 10, moved to China, hoping David would be able to spend more time with the family. But he wasn't, and the effects began to show. Letitia and Lennifer stopped doing homework, and Lawrence started getting into fights. "I was concerned about the kids' issues, and David wanted to deal more with them, but he was too busy," says Elly. After four years the Wus decided to return to Virginia. David quickly found a comparable job at Teligent, and when that company went bankrupt just 10 months later, he signed on with Tyco. The hitch: he would have to resume a hectic flying schedule. So, when all three children were selected to join the prestigious American Youth Orchestra as violinists, David missed their concerts. He was also away for their basketball, soccer and volleyball games. And when he was home, he was so jet-lagged that he often fell asleep while watching movies with the family. Elly was worried about what kind of message he was sending to the kids. "I told him, 'If someday you feel like the kids only need you financially, don't get upset with them, because that's what you taught them.'"
Then last spring news about the alleged mishandling of company funds by Tyco's top management began to leak out. David wanted to leave the company but was afraid he would not find work in a bad economy. Elly encouraged him to make the break, but David waited until the school year was over to ask the kids how they would feel about his quitting. "My children were mature enough to tell me, 'Daddy, you told us we have to pursue what we want to do; you should too,'" he says with emotion.