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For some, unemployment is chance to savor life

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Jenny Van Stone at Forsythe Park Fountain in Savannah, GA

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Nearly 9 percent of people in the Charlotte region are now unemployed. You've heard the stories of foreclosed homes and mounting debt. But there's another side to the story: People with larger savings accounts or whose pink slips came with severance packages. Many are young and single, and for them unemployment is a chance to live it up. 

The e-mail came around noon on December 11th, subject line: "Laid off" with two exclamation points. It was from my friend Jenny Van Stone. She's an interior designer, single and in her thirties. I felt awful, imagining her in Charlotte's unemployment line and scrambling to find work. But after a few weeks, I started getting emails from her that were like, "Hey, can't write long. I'm off to meet a friend at the coffee shop." Or "On my way to the park. We'll talk later."

"As long as I get my resumes out and make a little bit of an effort to look for work, it is like being on vacation some days," says Jenny. "Like 'What do I want to do today?'"

Jenny makes no apologies about enjoying her unemployment. She's doing more yoga and going on road trips. Her social life is on fire.

"I have a ton more energy," she bubbles. "And I can stay out later at night cause I can take a nap the next day if I'm worn out. Yeah, and I'm much more excited to spend whatever free time I have accommodating everyone else's schedule because now I have flexibility."

And I'm not the only one noticing that some people seem to be getting the most out of their unemployment.

"Yeah, I mean I have a lot of girlfriends that have been laid off," says Audra Gallant. "Especially now that it's becoming summer, I'm sure they'll be laying out by the pool a lot. They'll probably have much better tans than I do."

Audra Gallant still has a job. She's a headhunter. I meet her at a happy hour event for people who've been pink slipped. Audra's working the room in search of unemployed technology workers. She feels lucky to have a job, but her days are longer and more stressful right now.

Same thing for the coworkers Bob Evans left behind when he got laid off: "When I go to lunch with my friends from TIAA-CREF, they envy me," says Evans. "I went to Charleston for a week. They have to work all day and they are in fear of losing their job, because TIAA-CREF is laying people off."

According to one recent survey, employees spend nearly three hours a day worrying about their own job security right now. But Yaqui Benson says the unemployment grass isn't as green as it seems. She was laid off nine weeks ago from Muzak.

"I do take time out and go to the movies. I'll go volunteer," says Benson. "I'll go and visit with friends. Just something to get my mind off of it, because it can be depressing."

Local nonprofits say they're getting lots of calls from unemployed people with extra time on their hands. Plus, volunteering's much cheaper than Yaqui's usual stress-relievers - shopping and traveling. Jeff Steiner's started volunteering too, since he was laid off from a Charlotte law firm in August. He says he's not treating unemployment like a party, but he knows people who are.

"I know people who haven't done a thing literally since August and that will go out drinking seven nights a week til two a.m. every night," says Steiner. "You know? I mean it's dumb."

Jeff may be a little more careful, but he's also not hurting as much as some. With a nice severance package, he has the luxury of taking a little time to decide what comes next: "You know getting a job at a large, top 50 law firm these days is an absolute disaster," says Steiner. "So you've gotta use this time to either reinvent your career path, or you can say alright let me tread water for a year and a half or two years doing something I hate and hope that in two years there's a position waiting for me."

My friend Jenny has the same attitude. "It's about not jumping onto the first thing that available. It's about finding the right thing," says Jenny. "I definitely feel like there's been a huge silver lining. And I'm looking at it as an opportunity, more than a crisis."

Jenny's fortunate that losing her job didn't plunge her into immediate crisis - and she knows it. But she also knows the unemployment checks will stop coming in a few months and her savings will eventually run out. So, she's given me permission to envy her free time. As long as I remember that it comes with a price.