Calling Dr. Hackenbush

In Essays on February 26, 2013 at 5:19 am

Editorial Note: Unlike most of the other essays published here, this piece was not written for Work Stew. Lisa Maguire created it for her blog, and the eagle-eyed Amy Gutman spotted it and sent it my way. Because it’s a fine example of stewing out loud, I asked Lisa for permission to add it to Work Stew’s essay collection, and she graciously agreed. 

By Lisa Maguire

Lisa_MacguireI recently started working as a volunteer at a horse rescue here in Connecticut. The barn has about a dozen unwanted draft horses salvaged from feedlot auctions. Many of them are workhorses from Amish country and know how to pull a cart or a plow. The rescue hopes to turn them into riding lesson horses, therapy horses, or, if they’re not sound enough for work, companion animals.

All afternoon I mucked out stalls, stacked hay bales, and filled water buckets in a freezing horse barn. I made numerous trips to a manure pile pushing a wheelbarrow wobbling over iced mud. I came home tired, sore, and smelly. I had a blast.

It occurred to me that this was the first meaningful work I had done in years. Work that had tangible results (I could see the clean stall) and a purpose (the rescue relies solely on volunteer labor). It was also work that I was able to do without any politics or controversy. Unlike working in an investment bank, no one disputed who was going to fill up which water bucket; no one stood next to your just-filled bucket and claimed your work as their own; no one emptied your just-filled bucket and then refilled the bucket, saying you had not done it right; no one debated the process controls and regulations around filling up the buckets, taking out measuring sticks to see how far from the lip of the bucket you’d filled.

My employer has just announced cost reductions that will eliminate 10,000 of us. This follows six white-knuckle rounds of lay-offs since 2008. People are losing their jobs left and right in my business. The majority of us let go will probably never work in finance again—the jobs aren’t there. Over half a million financial services jobs have disappeared in the last five years. Many people were hired back in 2009 and 2010, but they are now on the chopping block again as big banks move out of proprietary trading and shrink their balance sheets to comply with regulatory capital rules. When I see the magnitude of the expected job losses, I wonder what will happen to us.

Even in good times, many of us were never that into spreadsheets; we were lured by the money and the opportunity to work with smart people. Now that we are faced with being cut loose, and pondering a future outside the financial world, most of us are asking the same questions: What is meaningful work? Is doing what I love a viable option? Will I earn enough to pay back the investment in the training required? Will I ever be able to retire?

I love working with horses, so this week’s idea is to become a horse dentist. Laugh if you want, but there is no need for a veterinary degree (4 years and  about $200,000) and, unlike a farrier, a horse dentist doesn’t need the upper body strength of an Olympic shot putter.

It’s not surprising that I want to work with animals. My female friends and colleagues looking for their next career are all contemplating caring professions: teaching, social work, psychotherapy, physical therapy, yoga instruction, career coaching. This is probably in reaction to having spent most of our adult lives working in the macho culture of Wall StreetHorse dentistry is also a caring profession, and better than the above options for a misanthrope like me because I won’t have to listen to the incessant chatter of my clients.

Also interesting about the new careers most of my friends have considered is that few of them require as much education or as many qualifications as our current jobs. Partly this is due to our age and circumstances. We no longer have the luxury of medical school, or, in my case, vet school—we are middle aged and need to start earning soon. The other characteristic these jobs have in common is that they cannot be outsourced. Many of them are not even professions but trades.

I don’t know of any men thinking this way. Not a single man I work with has talked to me about another career outside of finance, much less downshifting to a more satisfying but lower paid job—like building bicycles or making furniture. Are they as Hanna Rosin suggests in her book The End of Men, unadaptable, unwilling to consider lower paid work, even if the Wall Street jobs disappear? Or is this just a recycling of the female ‘opt-out revolution’ while the men start their own businesses or get hired by hedge funds?

It has been said that the dot-com boom can be traced back to the recession of the early 90s, which shed so many corporate jobs. All that talent had to go somewhere, and it created an entirely new industry. I would expect something similar to happen now. This supposes, however, that the people leaving finance have the incentives to start something new and enterprising. Where will all that talent go? Hedge funds cannot possibly absorb all the people being sidelined. There will undoubtedly be new ideas and new industries coming from these laid-off brains.

At the same time I wonder: will all these forty and fifty year-old yoga instructors find clients? Will the newly certified teachers find schools? Are there enough insured bad knees out there to absorb all these physiotherapists? I don’t want to think about whether there will be enough horses out there with equine malocclusion

I would like to think that people will seek meaningful work they enjoy. I don’t think that the next new idea will make people as much money; the world is just too competitive (and any new industry or technology is unlikely to be able to create barriers to entry as effectively as old-line Wall Street firms). The rest of us too old to be a part of it may end up working in trades. Maybe this is the beginning of a societal shift; let’s call it The New Humility. We will have to wait to see the shape of this trend, how many of the people downshifting are older, or are women.  I will be awaiting this with interest from my desk at the bank, wondering whether the day will come when I will no longer be reviewing spreadsheets but peering deep into a horse’s mouth.

Lisa Maguire is a financial services executive and aspiring horse dentist based in Stamford, Connecticut.

  1. very interesting as I’ve seen this shift in many women as well. I think there is huge potential for strong business acumen in the trades. how many times have you bemoaned the service you receive from a plumber, handyman, electrician, contractor and thought “I’m paying these people!? I’ve got an MBA, surely I can learn how to run a snake down the toilet!”

    and most recently, it’s become alarming how many of my clients have hit a wall with their outsourced so-called software dev teams. no project management, clients don’t know the right questions to ask, customer support is lacking. all this leads to small firms desperate to find someone to step in and clean up the mess.

    horses sound like much more fun, though. you should look into the Colorado Horse Rescue. my friend Deanna Lyn oversees the ops and it’s very well-run. maybe some good ideas to be shared?

  2. This is a thoughtful and well-written essay that raises some very important questions.

    However, I would take issue with the statements about men not “downshifting to a more satisfying but lower paid job.” This may just be a symptom of the finance industry, since it attracts the hyper-ambitious. There are a significant number of men who are choosing a different lifestyle. Some of the essays in Work Stew have reflected on that. For more, see this WSJ article on stay-at-home dads:

  3. I enjoyed this essay, and agree it is thought-provoking. But again, I think it is distracting to introduce the concept that there may be a gender issue here. Downshifting can tempt people at various stages in a career, and of course it can be precipitated by circumstance, such as a job lay-off. Downshifting requires:
    -Some financial security to enable you to make the plunge;
    -Freedom from undue pressure that might otherwise keep you stuck in your rut;
    -A lot of confidence in your own ability to make the change work.
    Perhaps pressures, that prevent people from choosing to do low-paid, but meaningful, work that they enjoy, are not equally spread, and this may explain why some do it, and some don’t (if the other conditions required to make the change are there).
    I hope that Lisa makes the plunge. It sounds as if her thought process has taken her almost all the way there.

  4. Maybe just the men who read Workstew are considering huge changes in career? I’ve been in the film business 34 years. Am taking early retirement. I am one of the top ten in my field, but see the lack of jobs, the corporate rage, the apathy that once honored its below the line creators. (Yes, I too got pissed when the gender issue popped up.) Still, I wish Lisa Maguire the best of luck. I know the feeling of loving a job for 34 years and the horribly mixed emotions of leaving it.

  5. I find the idea of a societal shift (“The New Humility”) an interesting one. As someone who was laid off a while ago from a good customer service position at a good company, I was reluctant to even consider something other than office work. Perhaps, in this economy, it is time to consider things I wouldn’t have before.

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