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Nine months after getting laid off, Catherine Goerz once again became part of the rush-hour commute -- in a way she'd never anticipated.

To pick up extra cash, Goerz took a temporary job handing out fliers touting the benefits of public transportation in the San Francisco subway system. Occasionally she'd bump into people she knew from her former job as a creative producer for a Bay Area communications company. "They're in their corporate clothes," she recalls, "and I'm in this silly T-shirt and hat. 'Cathy, is that you?' they'd ask. 'What are you doing here?' Ugh."

The Great Recession -- which is technically over, economists insist -- may be morphing into a broader epoch: the Great Humbling.

Millions of Americans who felt prosperous just a few years ago are now coping with long-term unemployment, sharp cutbacks in living standards, foreclosure, bankruptcy and a deep sense of failure. That could persist for years.

"This is not like earlier recessions, where things fell, then they bounced back to where they used to be," says Dennis Jacobe, chief economist for the Gallup polling organization. "We haven't seen this before. It's the only time this has happened since the Great Depression."

For many disenfranchised workers, the "new normal" is demoralizing. But some have found fresh career paths, clarified their priorities and discovered that they're more resourceful than they once thought.

After absorbing the initial shock of being laid off at 37, Goerz decided it was her chance to pursue a longtime goal: filming a documentary. She traveled cross-country with friends and produced a short film called "RE:Invention,"about creative ways people were toughing out the recession. After a screening at a local film festival, she won a small grant that helped her fund a longer version, which she hopes to finalize soon.

The grant covered only a portion of the production costs, however, with nothing left for living expenses. So Goerz has survived on monthly unemployment insurance payments, supplemented by odd jobs and freelance projects -- which have added up to just 25% of what she earned when she was employed full time.

That has required severe cutbacks but also triggered new discoveries.

"My quality of life has not changed at all," she says. "I think it's improved because I'm exploring what I want to do. When I see postings for full-time jobs, something inside me says, 'No, don't do it.' I want to make sure I am making the right choice."

Goerz may be at the vanguard of a historic shift in American attitudes. Researchers studying long-term trends among American consumers believe that a 20-year spending binge, fueled by easy credit, is over for good.

"Smaller things now make the bigger statement," according to a recent report on consumer trends by the Futures Co., a market-research firm. "The infatuation with having it all -- and having it all at once -- will give way to putting priority only on what's most important."

The first step is learning to be comfortable without the customary trappings of middle-class life. Many laid-off workers resist abrupt cutbacks at first, to preserve a sense of normalcy. Goerz did the opposite.

She received just two weeks' severance when she lost her job in December 2008, and her income fell from about $8,000 per month to $1,900. She put $5,000 in a savings account for emergencies and used the rest of her savings to buy a certificate of deposit, so she couldn't withdraw the money if she wanted to. That meant she'd have to live on no more than what came in every month.

Unnecessary spending on jewelry, clothes, makeup, handbags, movie rentals, music downloads, vacations, taxi rides and most conveniences stopped. She'd love to buy a new MacBook to help with networking, building a personal website and promoting her film, but instead she nurses a wheezy old Dell laptop, using programming tricks learned from friends to keep it kicking.