The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit Needs a Hankie

Deposed captains of industry get in touch with their feelings

A couple of weeks ago, Ridgewood, N.J., lost power after a weekend of heavy rain and wind. Not far from the front entrance of St. Elizabeth Episcopal Church, several trees had fallen across the road like leafy corpses. Inside, two meetings were going on in the dark: one, a prayer group reciting Our Fathers; the other, a support group for men. It was 9 in the morning.

Ridgewood’s Men in Transition group is for men who have been laid off from their high-paying Manhattan jobs in business and finance.

On the second floor, six men pushed smaller tables together to form one large conference-room-size table and took a seat. Usually, there would be more, explained the group’s founder, Paul Anovick, guessing that a few members had awoken in their dark homes and assumed the meeting was off.

Anovick is a Man who Transitioned a few years ago from a career in TV broadcasting to become a motivational speaker. Anovick is 64 but looks 54 and has the energy of a 44-year-old. “So Rob, why don’t we start with you today?” he began.

Rob, 44, sat across from Anovick. (The men asked to be identified only by their first names so that potential employers would not find this during investigatory Googling.) “I went last week,” Rob said, but then began talking anyway. A year ago, Rob was laid off from a marketing job and has since been consulting for a California-based e-commerce company, but he’s growing frustrated; his new employer keeps extending his contract but won’t give him a permanent position.

Phillip, 66, who, like Rob, is from the town of Saddle River, N.J. (median family income: $152,169), and who used to be the CEO of a small Manhattan bank, had a question for Rob: “Let me ask you: What is your family prepared to sacrifice?”

“I think I have a tendency to make things look worse than they are,” Rob said. “I don’t want to move my family out to Northern California if it’s not going to work out.”

“Well, that’s a good thing,” Anovick said. “Sometimes by identifying what you’re not going to do, you can focus on what you will do.”

In the fall of 2008, shortly after the fall of Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns, the pastor at St. Elizabeth’s began to pray for members of his congregation who had lost jobs. Anovick, a member of the church, suggested he could provide more than spiritual support. He scheduled the first Men in Transition meeting in January 2009, right around the time experts reported that 82 percent of those laid off were men, while the proportion of working women had barely changed. Three men showed up.

“A lot of that catharsis took place in the first half of ’09 with the finance guys,” Anovick said. “They had this shared experience of losing the routine of their lives, like not going to the train station or standing in the supermarket at 9 a.m. and then not knowing what to do.”

Twenty-eight laid-off men have cycled through the group at one point or another, including traders from the New York Stock Exchange and Alliance Bernstein; a Morgan Stanley financial adviser; and a vice president of public-sector and infrastructure banking at Goldman Sachs.

Anovick called the group’s exclusion of women a “comfort factor.” “Men have a more difficult time speaking about unemployment, particularly in Ridgewood, where the finance guys are the primary breadwinners,” he said. “It’s a challenging, humiliating experience, and they said they wouldn’t be comfortable speaking with women in the room.”

“I didn’t want to come at first,” said Steve, 44, from Mahwah, N.J. (median family income: $111,714), after the meeting. Steve, who has longish black hair and glasses, was laid off two years ago as a director of business development at a marketing firm and has since been consulting. “I guess it’s a guy thing. I originally called it ‘miserable men,’ because I thought that’s what Men in Transition was: a bunch of guys who were talking about how miserable they were. I didn’t want to be with a bunch of losers. Nothing personal,” he said and briefly looked in the direction of Barry, from Ramsey, N.J. (median family income $104,036), who used to work for a major financial services company.

Steve was surprised to find that many of the men were actually kind of alpha. “There was a guy here who had something like 30 traders working for him on the floor of the stock exchange,” Steve said.

Sometimes, the subject matter drifts over to wives and mortgages and children and tuition and soccer coaching and lawn-mowing and pet care. But not often enough, in Steve’s opinion. “I think that’s the biggest thing that’s missing,” he said. “It’s still somewhat of a taboo subject.”

Back at the meeting, Barry was telling the group about his recent meeting with a recruiter in Manhattan. “He says the market is opening up, but the roles they’re placing are primarily lower level and lower compensation,” Barry said.

Phillip, the former bank CEO, was next. He talked about working as a consultant and not necessarily looking for a permanent job. “I have this argument with my wife,” he said. “She is petrified—she would rather see me in a job than doing what I’m doing now—but I have to tell you, I am having way more fun and doing far more interesting things than running a bank. What I’m getting at is, it’s a very liberating thing.”

By the time the conversation came around to Steve, the marketing consultant, he seemed prepared. “I’ve got five fronts right now, and they are all very active,” he assured the group. He spent an hour and a half with a headhunter in New York last week; a major cosmetics company has been in touch; he has had two interviews with a local marketing firm; he finished a consulting assignment for another company; and he’s been working with the inventor of a product called PetWashSpa.

At a little over an hour into the meeting, Rob was getting antsy and was swinging back on his chair, catching himself with his feet each time it was about to tip. Rob rushed off to catch a flight to California to meet with the company he hoped would finally hire him. A few weeks later, I called Rob to see how it went. He said it was a work in progress and that he didn’t have anything to report just yet.

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