If this isn’t the Great Depression, it is the Great Humbling. Can manhood survive the lost decade?
Brian Goodell, of Mission Viejo, Calif., won two gold medals in the 1976 Olympics. An all-American, God-fearing golden boy, he segued into a comfortable career in commercial real estate. Until 2008, when he was laid off. As a 17-year-old swimmer, he set two world records. As a 52-year-old job hunter, he’s drowning.
Brock Johnson, of Philadelphia, was groomed at Harvard Business School and McKinsey & Co., and was so sure of his marketability that he resigned in 2009 as CEO of a Fortune 500 company without a new job in hand. Johnson, who asked that his real name not be used, was certain his BlackBerry would be buzzing off its holster with better offers. At 48, he’s still unemployed.
Two coasts. Two men who can’t find jobs. And one defining moment for the men in the gray flannel suits who used to run this country. Or at least manage it.
Capitalism has always been cruel to its castoffs, but those blessed with a college degree and blue-chip résumé have traditionally escaped the worst of it. In recessions past, they’ve kept their jobs or found new ones as easily as they might hail a cab or board the 5:15 to White Plains. But not this time.
Can Manhood Survive the Recession?
The suits are “doing worse than they have at any time since the Great Depression,” says Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist at the Economic Policy Institute. And while economists don’t have fine-grain data on the number of these men who are jobless—many, being men, would rather not admit to it—by all indications this hitherto privileged demo isn’t just on its knees, it’s flat on its face. Maybe permanently. Once college-educated workers hit 45, notes a post on the professional-finance blog Calculated Risk, “if they lose their job, they are toast.”
The same guys who once drove BMWs, in other words, have now been downsized to BWMs: Beached White Males.
Through the first quarter of 2011, nearly 600,000 college-educated white men ages 35 to 64 were unemployed, according to previously unpublished Labor Department stats. That’s more than 5 percent jobless—double the group’s pre-recession rate. That might not sound bad compared with the plight of younger, less-educated workers and minorities, but it’s a historic change from the last recession, when about half as many lost their oxford shirts. The number of college-educated men unemployed for at least a year is five times higher today than after the dotcom bubble. In New York City, men in the 35-to-54 kill zone have lost jobs faster than any other group, including teenage girls, according to new data from the Fiscal Policy Institute.
As if middle age isn’t bad enough. The moribund metabolism. The purple pill that keeps your food down. The blue pill that keeps another part of your anatomy up. Now you can’t get aneffing job? Stuck in your own personal Detroit of the soul, with the grinding stress of enforced idleness. The wife who doesn’t look at you quite the same way. The poignantly forgiving sons. The stain on your masculinity for becoming the bread-loser. The night sweats and dark refuge of Internet porn. The gnawing fear that this may be the beginning of a slow, shaming crawl to early Social Security.
There’s been little research on the psychic toll of the Mancession. But this month NEWSWEEK conducted an exclusive poll of 250 unemployed (and underemployed) men ages 41 to 59. Most of them are married, white, middle-class, and looking for work. The results (see chart) provide a rare window into the BWM and a characteristically male contradiction between feelings and action. As in: I’m never going to get a job as good as my old one, but I refuse to sell the house! Or: I’m depressed, I can’t sleep, my sex drive is shot, and my wife now has to support the family, but I don’t need marriage counseling! I’ll just give Mommy a back rub, do some housework, and we’ll be fine!
It might be tempting to snark at these former fat cats suffering lean times. But when Beached White Males suffer, so do their wives and children. Lives, marriages, and futures are at stake. Examining who these guys are, and what washed them up, is not an exercise in schadenfreude. It’s a cautionary tale. To quote Arthur Miller on the most famous Beached White Male, “Attention must be paid.”
Consider Brock Johnson, the executive who walked away from a Fortune 500 company two years ago and hasn’t found a job since. On a rainy Friday over lunch near his six-bedroom home, Johnson says his wife and five kids are wondering, “How much money do we really have? How long can we stay in this house?” He sends out 40 emails a day in search of the job that will put him back on top.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. At Harvard, friends joked that Johnson had “the CEO look.” At 6 feet 4, with a full head of close-cropped hair, he not only looks but talks like Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy character from 30 Rock. His résumé lists his strength as “transformational change management.” On his LinkedIn page he describes himself as a CEO, as though it’s an immutable characteristic, like his lake-blue eyes.
At first, he felt as if he was on vacation, but moved quickly into disbelief and despair. The family dynamic started to fray. “What was he thinking?” his preteen daughter asked her mom one night. “In this economy?” Every couple of weeks his middle-school son comes into Johnson’s home office to check on him. “Dad?” he begins. “Have you found any jobs you might like?”
“It’s humbling,” Johnson says. He started going to networking events, which only brought him lower. “A bunch of people get together, hang out, trade contacts. For me it’s kind of depressing … I’m not trying to be arrogant, but I have better contacts than most people.” At this thought, his cheeks redden. When he was employed, he didn’t do much to help those who weren’t. “I’m embarrassed to admit that.” He vows he’ll treat people differently now. He looks away.
The corporate warrior has begun to cry.
In California, Brian Goodell tells a similar tale of entitlement denied. The Olympic medalist is the kind of Wheaties-box hero whom corporations used to hire just to put on the golf course with clients. Those days are over. “I was one of the most recent hires, so it didn’t surprise me I was laid off, especially since we’d already experienced a round of layoffs. But I was surprised no one was hiring. I’ve always been able to find something within a few months. The negative thoughts,” he says, “can overwhelm you.”
Goodell, who is married to a successful real-estate agent in their Orange County suburb, says his joblessness has added “a lot of stress to the marriage. She feels like she can’t take a breath. She works around the clock, she’s so afraid of my situation. She’s under extreme pressure, and she resents it. So I can’t take a breath. My boys’ll say, ‘Hey, Dad, you wanna go to the beach?’ and I have to think about what she’ll think if I’m at the beach. I have to tell ’em, ‘I don’t think I better do that.’ ”
What whacked guys like him was nothing personal, just business. From the financial meltdown in late 2007 that led to the recession up to now, the rolls of all unemployed white professional men have more than doubled, to a million (not including sales jobs, which add another 300,000). Wall Street and the broader world of business culled the most, laying off more than 300,000 from their trading desks and cubicle farms. Firms that draw on computer skills also thinned about 50,000 men from their ranks. Architects and engineers, the hardest hit by the housing crash, saw almost 90,000 casualties. In each category, the unemployment rate doubled—and then some.
In some ways, it was inevitable. Automation isn’t just a blue-collar problem anymore. Powerful software programs replaced armies of financial officers, accountants, computer-chip designers, even lawyers, who now feed millions of documents into “e-discovery” programs. Job growth in management, technology, and other white-collar professions slowed to nearly zero. The media business has been perhaps hardest hit by technological change. Last year ABC News pink-slipped nearly 400 people—25 percent of its workforce.
Many of these guys may be great on the back nine but totally lack the skill set to get them through anything like this, says Judith Gerberg, a Manhattan-based executive career coach. “If you went to the college of your choice, married the woman of your choice, and bought the house of your choice, you’ve never dealt with rejection. You’ve never had to develop fortitude.” She gives her clients a chart with all the hours of the day, because corporate types are used to having other people color-code their life. If not quite the Great Depression, it is certainly the Great Humbling.
As the clock ticks toward noon, another supplicant shifts in the hot seat, trying to impress an interviewer who has seen it all. It’s day two of a six-day boot camp for unemployed professionals at Brandman University in Irvine, Calif. The atmosphere is a cross between a 12-step meeting and The Apprentice, complete with chest-pumping team names like “The Closers!”
Right now, the focus is one-on-one. John Hall, a 72-year-old silver fox known locally as the “John Wooden of career coaches” (after the legendary UCLA basketball guru), is conducting mock job interviews. It’s only an exercise, but the interviewees get nervous and forget their lines. You can feel throats going dry, shirts moistening with flop sweat.
MOCK INTERVIEWER: “Did you have any trouble finding us?”
INTERVIEWEE: “Nope, I did a drive-by yesterday, so I knew exactly where to go!”
MOCK INTERVIEWER: “Tell me a little about why you’d be right for this position.”
INTERVIEWEE: “Oh, OK. Well, uh … ” [Awkward pause.]
It’s like a particularly grim night at the Improv. And it might be funny, if it weren’t so painful to watch.
Get them together, and it’s like group therapy. During a half-hour lunch break, some of the men in the class—all in their 40s and 50s—pull out brown paper bags and unpack the anguish that brought them here. “I feel like I’m wearing this neon sign on my car saying, ‘Unemployed Bum,’ ” says Chip LeDoux. At 42, he’s the baby of this luckless group, laid off from a sales job six months ago. Dave Santos, a 56-year-old former telecom salesman, has a longer tale of woe. He’s been unemployed for three years, but only his wife and sons know. When his mother calls, he lies. The hardest part, he says, is “looking in the mirror every day.”
While laid-off Europeans blame the System, Homo americanus blames himself. “It gets turned inward,” says Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History. “ ‘What’s wrong with me as a man?’ ”
They’re hurting, these men of a certain age. Losing their livelihood isn’t the only “transition” they’re going through. Dr. Jed Diamond, author of Surviving Male Menopause and The Irritable Male Syndrome, calls it a “double whammy.” The first: “a change of life, hormonally based, affecting our psychology and emotions from 40 to 55.” The second: unemployment. “It’s devastating. The extreme reaction is suicide, but before you get there, there’s irritability and anger, fatigue, loss of energy, withdrawal, drinking, more fights with their wives.”
And sex. Or lack thereof. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 45 percent of men admitted to a diminished interest in sex. It’s a vicious cycle, Diamond says. “You don’t feel as manly because you lost your job. You don’t feel as sexy, so there are more problems with you and your wife.”
Intellectually, women can say, “It’s not his fault, he’s working hard to find a job.” Emotionally, it’s another story. This is a generation caught between two ideas of manhood, says Coontz: “Old enough to have been brought up with a model of male breadwinning. Young enough to feel they shouldn’t be threatened if their wife has a job.”
When downward mobility is being disguised, it’s often by the wife. UCLA sociologist Jennie Brand studies the life trajectories of “socioeconomically disadvantaged populations,” which now includes white males. When people lose jobs, she finds upticks in depression and declines in social participation. Others have found divorce—as well as a transfer to kids, whose report cards suffer. “Everything I’ve done so far suggests that there will be long-term ramifications,” says Brand. “Not only in two or three years, but 10 years from now we’ll be dealing with the effects of this recession.” John Wells, whose acclaimed drama The Company Men is about four BWMs laid off by a Boston manufacturing firm, calls it a “lost decade.”
If the career and life you trained for don’t exist anymore, one might tactfully ask, how about retraining? Companies used to pick up the tab for outplacement of canned personnel. Today those programs are rare. Some states pick up the slack with their own initiatives. But few seem to work. A 2008 Labor Department study found that the largest government retraining program offered “small or nonexistent” benefits. One unspoken reason: age.
Texas A&M economist Joanna Lahey found that 50-year-old white men are less likely to land jobs in states that enforce age-discrimination laws. Why? Firms, it seems, don’t want to get involved with members of a contentious group. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that age-discrimination complaints rose by 28 percent in 2008, a year when three quarters of job losers were male, and rose again in 2010, surging past 23,000. No wonder graying men are dyeing their hair.
Many of the newly jobless rebrand themselves as consultants. The number of so-called independent contractors is up by more than 1 million since 2005, according to Jeffrey Eisenach, an economist at George Mason University. More than one in five of them work in management, business, or finance. Boutique employment agencies are springing up to exploit this labor pool, which is attractive to companies that would rather not shell out for benefits or a 401(k). The New York–based Business Talent Group has a deep bench of BWMs (and some BWFs) for hire, many of them M.B.A.s with two decades of experience as managers, directors, or C-level boardroom players. BTG is on track for record growth this year, says Jody Greenstone Miller, an ex–Time Warner executive who founded the company in 2005. “We want people who treat this type of work as a permanent career,” Miller says. It typically takes executives six to nine months of looking for staff jobs, she adds, before they come around to the idea that no matter what you were before, you’re now basically a full-time temp.
Brian Goodell, who finished John Hall’s boot camp a month ago, is trying hard to be resilient. He and his eldest son, who just graduated from college, go to networking events together, as well as to the “job ministry” at Rick Warren’s Saddleback megachurch. And he’s training again with his old Olympic coach. The tough part for this onetime elite athlete is the pity. “Say you have a disease, like cancer, and you’re trying to be real positive and everyone’s like, ‘How are you doing?’ I’m like, ‘Don’t pity me. I’m strong. Don’t pity me.’ ”
He held the phone out to his wife, Vicki, who had just walked in and was running into the shower, taking a work call on her cell.
“Hey, hon!” Goodell called out, following her into the bathroom, laughing. “I think she’s taking her phone into the shower. Wanna talk to NEWSWEEK?”
You could hear her heels kick off onto the tile, the water turning on.
“No!” she shouted.
“She’s way too busy,” Goodell says.
Or she doesn’t want to talk about it.
Correction: In “Dead Suit Walking” (NEWSWEEK April 25, 2011), NEWSWEEK incorrectly referred to Business Talent Group as a New York-based employment agency. Rather, it is a Los Angeles-based firm, which, according to founder Jody Miller, works primarily with “a highly select group of independent professionals committed to sequential project-based work.” Further, the characterization of the composition of the firm’s talent pool as “full-time temps” was inaccurately attributed to Ms. Miller. Newsweek regrets the errors.