It's Friday, so where's the leaving do?

As the ranks of the downsized swell by the week, one new industry is booming

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There used to be a tradition in Fleet Street newspapers called "banging out". It involved an employee, on the day he retired after a life-time's stalwart service to his chosen rag, being walked by his colleagues through the presses in the print room. As he wandered towards his rendezvous with a carriage clock, the printers serenaded him by whacking the metal benches with their hammers, beating out a ceremonial slow-march to mark his departure.

"Banging out" is a practice that has long since disappeared. Few reach retirement age anymore. It's the same story in other walks of life: financial services, banking, retail, everywhere a white collar is worn, jobs are being shed, desks emptied, belongings bundled into bin bags.

But just as every cloud has a silver lining, so every personal crisis offers an entrepreneurial opportunity. As jobs-for-life decline, so, exponentially, the leaving industry is on the march. The signs are everywhere in many of Britain's business districts. Take Canary Wharf in London's Docklands, for example. In this centre of managerial, financial and service business, the shops are there to furnish special occasions. The florist's shop, the chocolate shop, the dress hire agency, the greetings card shop: these are places packed at Christmas, Valentine's Day, Mother's Day with anxious executives panic-buying at the last minute. But through the rest of the year, these businesses rely for making their money on the core trade: departures.

In the card shop, a whole rack displays items to celebrate another leaving: "Sorry you're off"; "We'll miss you"; "Don't forget us" extort over-sized cards, big enough for everyone in the office to write their witty thoughts. In the fancy chocolate shop next door you can buy a departing friend a cake with a candle for each year's service. In the florist's over the way, they do a lovely bouquet to brighten a departure (pounds 25 for a formal bunch; pounds 27 for a hand-tied).

But it is in the bars that the real bye-bye business is done. There is held the leaving do. Five years ago, leaving dos happened only occasionally, when someone was moving off to better things, and a few friends might gather to wish them well on their journey. Now every time you slip down for a quick sharpener on the way home, a section of the bar will have been roped off, and behind it a little huddle will have gathered around a couple of bowls of crudites, roaring with forced bonhomie at a wearisome in-joke. One bar has hosted at least three such occasions a week since Christmas and recently things have got so busy that they have been doubling up with two a night.

"To be perfectly honest," explained one bar man, "at the moment leaving dos are a pretty tidy proportion of our takings."

Like all English social gatherings, a rigorously observed social etiquette has developed around the leaving do, most of it concerning alcohol. The principal purpose of the event is for the departing ex-employee to pour a good proportion of their pay-off down the throats of erstwhile colleagues. Thus they are expected to organise the venue, issue the invitations and buy a large quantity of drink, a task best performed by leaving their credit card behind the bar. From the outside, this may seem an unbalanced obligation; the leaver, after all, may not find any new employment immediately and could do without spending a chunk of severance to lubricate the throats of those with a regular income. But there is always a double-edge to a leaving do. The departing employee will almost certainly be leaving behind essential work which will have to be done by someone else left to toil even harder than before. These are people, according to the custom of the Nineties, who deserve a little drink for their pain. Leaving dos invariably ring to the sound of mirthless gags about escape committees, tunnels and wooden horses.

Once the party is under way, when a critical mass of guests has been achieved, a couple of speeches will be made and then the presents and cards will be handed over. These have been bought from the proceeds of a desperate whip-round, which will invariably feature someone finding it very amusing to seek change from a pound. The present will have been bought at the last second, and without thought; indeed the leaving gift has almost single-handedly been responsible for a revival in the book and record token market.

After the presentation, most of the guests will drift homeward, leaving as soon as someone has asked the awkward "so, what are you going to do then?" question. Only the die-hards remain, those who have not yet succumbed to the leaving-do fatigue which has gripped so many employees (there are only so many goodbyes you can say, only so much booze you can drink, even if it is free).

Like scrap metal merchants prospering after the shipyards closed down, this leaving business has the air of a gold rush, a bubble industry, one that will dissipate the moment directors realise they need someone to do the work and call a halt to the downsizing.

But then there is always another opportunity. A new market is already emerging: next to the leaving cards on the shop racks are the divorce cards. There is a growing business in celebrating divorces: it is now possible even to have a religious ceremony marking the final split, the downsizing of couples. And it is increasingly fashionable to hold a party to celebrate the moment when that decree absolute drops through the door. It evidently seems such a shame to many people that, having spent so much on the marriage, they should not fork out a few quid on marking the break- up.

Ironically - and fortuitously for many businesses - the fashion for job- cutting may well have done its bit to help create this market niche, which could involve hundreds of thousands of customers. Those left behind, working twice as hard to cover their departed colleagues, may well find themselves divorcing in record numbers.

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