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An odyssey of downward mobility

Diana Mackey, 62, Sparks, Nev.

Last Updated: February 3, 2009: 7:48 AM ET

(Fortune Magazine) -- If you'd told Diana Mackey a few years back that she'd be working the night shift as a temporary sorter in an (AMZN, Fortune 500) warehouse, she probably would have laughed out loud.

With a long career in human resources for the likes of Ernst & Young and Cambridge Technology Partners, Mackey, 62, had been able to raise two children on her own, buy herself a few homes, travel, and save for retirement. But she lost even the Amazon job after just four days, let go for not being fast enough on her feet.

A stream of corporate rationalizations, mergers, and plain old bad luck has left her jobless, frustrated, and open to anything that will help her and her boyfriend pay the mortgage on his condo in suburban Reno. "It's hard to believe that no one wants you now," she says. "It's hard to deal with that. But we're survivors."

Mackey, a native of Columbus, spent many years shuttling between New York and Ohio, recruiting new hires for Ernst & Young and rising to the position of senior manager. She moved to Claremont Technology Group, which went public and netted her enough cash to finance a move to San Francisco and a job with Cambridge in 1997. From that point she suffered a long decline in earning power. She joined two dot-com startups, both of which went under.

Looking for a fresh start, she moved to Sparks with her boyfriend, John Corbin, in 2002 and landed a job in HR for a telecom company, working her way up to $90,000. But the company was bought by Sprint (S, Fortune 500), her job functions were relocated to Sacramento, and she was laid off. She landed a $70,000 job recruiting for Round Table Pizza that lasted 16 months, until management merged two regions.

She knew what would come next. "The assistant manager wanted to meet me for breakfast on the last day of the month," Mackey says. "I said, 'You're going to let me go.'"

Since then Mackey has been caught up in a job search that she says is even more difficult in a place like Reno, with a lot of transplants and few large companies. Career-counseling sessions, she says, are "like 100 unemployed 60-year-old people in a room looking at each other." She recently endured a series of nine interviews with a medical company, only to be told that it had decided not to fill the position. Mackey volunteered for the Obama campaign; then, out of money, she and Corbin decided to take temp jobs at Amazon. They lasted only four grueling nights.

Today Mackey is getting $362 a week in unemployment and has reluctantly decided to start collecting Social Security (for less than she would have had she waited until 65). The couple feels trapped, unable to sell the condo because of the glut of foreclosures in their neighborhood. So Mackey has started selling off possessions on eBay and living an unfamiliar lifestyle. "I used to go to Costco and load up on steaks and chops," she says with a hint of self-deprecation. "Now we go to Wal-Mart. I got 75 boxes of Hamburger Helper on sale." She keeps a careful spreadsheet of every grocery item she buys and which store has it at the best price. It saves money - and, she says with a weary wink, keeps those technical skills fresh.

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