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Meredith Haberfeld Reuters

July 11, 2008
By Kristina Cooke and Julie Haviv

When Lindsay North started working at Lehman Brothers 11 years ago she never expected that in her 40s she would be unemployed and networking nonstop.

But, as is the case with tens of thousands of others who have been laid off as a result of Wall Street’s turmoil, that is exactly how things panned out.

Being laid off in middle age can be devastating. But for some, like North, it is an opportunity to take stock of their lives, re-open old avenues or try something new.

“I’m really reassessing what I want to do with my life — and I have the time now to meet lots of different people outside my field,” North said. “It’s got me back to a lot of things I’ve been interested in for years but never got around to following up on.”

She is pursuing interests that she had when she was a student at the London School of Economics in the early 80s, such as social ventures and environmentalism.

But she is adamant not to let her experience in lehm real estate division fall by the wayside, perhaps going into environmental architecture.

“Maybe I would have got around to pursuing this eventually, but I have to take this chance now to really go for it,” she said.

Searching for employment at any age is tough, but for those over 40 it can be even more daunting, especially for those saddled with a mortgage and children’s tuition fees.

“After a while, you don’t want to be a novice in a field and people expect you to have a certain amount of expertise the older you are. Being a novice is harder the older you get,” North said.

Looking Around

North’s old firm, Lehman, is among the financial firms that have taken the biggest hit in the fallout from the U.S. mortgage crisis.

The financial sector as a whole has announced 85,258 job cuts so far this year, the most of any industry, according to a recent report by global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

As a result, people are turning to some unusual places for help.

Colleges are reporting an increase in the number of financial industry professionals over 40 who have been getting back in touch, some of whom are wanting to change careers to be doctors, lawyers or teachers.

“The issue, though, is that the financial world puts these golden handcuffs on people and it is hard to go from $250,000 or more to being an English teacher for $80,000 or not even that,” said an alumni relations officer at a major U.S. college. She spoke on condition of anonymity, citing alumni privacy.

Attendance for career-oriented courses at a popular community and cultural center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan — an area where many Wall Street professionals live — has jumped 21 percent in the past year.

“Our adult education programs and personal growth lectures have become extremely popular,” said David Jacobson, adult education program associate at the 92nd Street Y, a community center, adding that attendees tended to be the 40-plus crowd.

The class “Ace Every Interview” sold out last month and another is on its fall schedule, Jacobson said.

Jumping Ship

Not everyone is waiting to be laid off.

After 12 years working in a mostly booming industry, Kevin Callaghan, 52, quit his job in commercial mortgage-backed securities at Barclays Capital in New York, to do an MBA in China.

“Rather than stay in an uncertain business environment and accept the almost-certain major hit to my compensation for the next few years, I decided that it was a better use of my time to sit out the rest of this downward spiral and try to retool myself over the next few years,” he said in an e-mail.

“Worst case is that I end up back in the U.S. in 18 months, well rested and ready to enter what I hope will be a better job market.”

For middle-aged people on Wall Street who experienced the stock market crash in 1987, the current round of job cuts is deja vu.

Right Management in New York, an outplacement firm that works with nearly every Wall Street firm, is seeing an influx of candidates from many of the largest institutions, the same as in 1987.

“What is different now, however, is that a large proportion of people have been through this before or know people who have been through this, so they have benchmarks to make a comparison,” said Edward Witherell, Right Management’s market vice president. “Fewer are panicking.”

Meredith Haberfeld, a life coach whose clients are at large banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley as well as smaller boutique firms, said few respond well to forced change such as a layoff.

Years later, however, “people have usually found and recognized benefits of even the moves they were forced to make.”

North said she is taking her time and looking for the right thing. And, while she liked her job at Lehman, she is in no hurry to return to the financial industry.

“The deals are a lot slower at the moment and so you’re not doing the same thing anymore. It’s much more fun to do when you’re sort of winning.”

(Reuters)