Keeping Up Appearances After a Layoff Can Be Hard Work

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 12, 2009

For weeks after he was laid off, Clinton Cole would rise at the usual time, shower, shave, don one of his Jos. A. Bank suits and head out the door of his Vienna home -- to a job that no longer existed.

He was careful to stay away until 5 p.m., whiling away the hours at the library or on a park bench in a wireless Internet hot spot. If he had to stay home, he stashed the car in the garage.

When he lost his job as a business development manager with General Dynamics Information Technology in February, Cole was too ashamed to tell anyone except his wife and family what had happened. It made no difference that 1,200 other workers were pink-slipped at the same time. He felt as if he had done something wrong, even though he knew he hadn't.

"In this area, in the shadow of our nation's capital, so much is about appearances," said Cole, a carefully spoken man of medium height with thinning brown hair and tortoise-shell glasses, which he removes for photographs. "There was fear that other kids wouldn't play with your kids. You won't be invited to parties or be ostracized. Or that others would distance themselves from you because you might need help they won't be able to provide. All those thoughts race through your mind."

After about two months, Cole tired of the charade, and now he thinks that talking about it publicly could help him find employment and inspire others. He realized that those he once thought would shun him often reached out to help. Perhaps they saw a bit of themselves in his anxious eyes -- just one severance check away from disaster.

Even as the ranks of unemployed and underemployed have grown, career counselors, therapists and other experts say a certain segment is determined to suffer in silence, keeping details of job losses and financial pressure secret from all but close family and friends. The problem is particularly acute in affluent neighborhoods in the Washington region, experts say, where the self-worth of high-achieving professionals is deeply intertwined with their jobs. There might be 14 million unemployed people in this country, but in this town -- with its A-types and status seekers -- failure still is not an option.

Current at the Club

"I have people who are not working and laid off who still pay their country club memberships. Then they're not sleeping at night and fighting with their spouses or children," said Cynthia Turner, a licensed clinical social worker who practices in Loudoun and Fairfax counties. "Still, there's shame. What I see is people willing to talk about the stock market but not willing to talk about . . . losing a job, being furloughed or laid off."

Feelings of disgrace and fear are natural for laid-off workers, experts say, but going to extremes to mask the truth is more prevalent in other cultures, such as some in Asia. During the recession of the 1990s, some Japanese "salarymen" committed suicide rather that admit to their families that they had lost their jobs; an online poll this spring of 440 dismissed Korean workers showed that one in five hid the news from their families. Stories such as Cole's are becoming more common here in this recession, because the downturn has hit more middle-class and affluent families than usual.

When Henry Brinton, the pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church, set up a support group for unemployed executives this year, he modeled it on anonymous self-help groups. With those rules, a dozen congregants have felt free to tell their stories.

"I didn't want anyone to come to this group feeling as though they were going to be embarrassed or gossiped about," Brinton said.

And so a District lawyer recently bumped from equity partner to counsel says little but worries about how he's going to pay the mortgage on his freshly built dream home. And in Silver Spring, a 39-year-old journalist who can't find a TV job still goes out for dinner with friends who don't know how poor she is, pretending all the while that she's doing just fine. She orders water and a $4 side salad, then drives her (paid-for) Jaguar to whichever grocery store has Lean Cuisine on sale. (These two and others interviewed did not want their names used for the same reason that they are keeping the information from their friends.)

The number of college-educated workers who are unemployed is rising; in the Washington area, those collecting unemployment benefits who have college or postgraduate degrees more than doubled from July 2008 to last month, up to 6,227 from 2,652. But for some, the sheer numbers of unemployed in this "jobless recovery" provide little comfort and do not lessen the stigma.

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