There are days in a man’s life he never forgets: the births of his children; his first and last games in competitive sports; and the moment he’s informed that he’s out of a job. The latter, of course, is a tough pill to swallow; it’s followed by a dizzying confluence of dread and confusion—how could this happen? This precedes what could be a long, bumpy road to landing on one’s feet. Nothing prepares a person for it, and there’s no great advice for what the next steps should be.
For me, that moment came at perhaps the worst time: three months after my mother succumbed to a three-year battle with a hyperaggressive form of breast cancer. I stood paralyzed over my mother’s body after life had left it. It was the same night that a Florida jury acquitted the man who fatally shot Trayvon Martin. Two months earlier, my mother disclosed that she’d allowed her life insurance to lapse shortly before her diagnosis. I paid for her burial out of my own pocket. Three months later—just before Thanksgiving and days after what would’ve been my mother’s 60th birthday—I was laid off. Christmas was coming. My savings were depleted. I had custody of my two teenage sons and a sense of pride that wouldn’t even allow me to discuss my situation with my family, let alone ask for help.
What I experienced—the exasperation of losing a job, the desperation and depression in the months that followed, the long recovery afterward—is something that countless men have experienced in the wake of the Great Recession. Although the economy is far stronger than it was in the early part of this decade, the financial and emotional turmoil of a job loss is deep and lingering. Financial and psychological experts concur that those challenges are acute and very distinct for men, who often connect their identities with their career achievements and their status as breadwinners. And for Black men, especially those with families, rebuilding in the aftermath of a job loss can be as difficult as the layoff itself.
“There’s more pressure on a man when he’s supporting a family,” says Rich Thompson Jr., an Atlanta financial adviser.
“Men are very low-maintenance when we’re by ourselves. But when we have a family, we’re forced to make decisions a lot faster than men who only have themselves to take care of. Then there’s our pride—when that’s hurt, it creates a lot of friction in our homes and relationships. A lot of households are ruined because the men have gone through layoffs.”
Thompson knows this firsthand. Until 2010, he ran a successful call center business that handled telemarketing calls for major companies. The business earned millions in revenue each year, he says, affording his family an affluent lifestyle with plenty of disposable income. Then calamity struck: Congress passed a bill aimed at curtailing aggressive phone calls from telemarketers. The legislation hurt call centers like his as clients jumped ship. The business suffered, then shuttered, leaving Thompson with a dilemma: take the first job available to stop the financial bleeding or hold out for the next big opportunity.
“I couldn’t do it,” he says of some of the lowball job opportunities he received. “I dealt with a lot at home because of that, but I wasn’t going to just take whatever I had to deal with. I would’ve never been happy taking a job making $40,000 a year.”
Thompson, who wound up tapping into a mentor to get training as a financial adviser and started a new company, was luckier than many. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for Black men in July (the latest month for which figures were available) was 8.8 percent. While that’s nearly three points lower than it was last year at this time—and considerably lower than at the height of the Great Recession—it’s still significantly higher than unemployment rates for Whites and Asians of both genders, and slightly higher than the unemployment rate for Black women. And it took a lot longer for unemployment rates to fall among Black men than it did for the other groups as the economy picked back up.
Statistically, those numbers tell a bleak story. Anecdotally, it’s worse: It’s likely that the inflated unemployment numbers for Black men include tens of thousands of the long-term unemployed, those who lost their jobs so long ago that unemployment benefits ran out before they were hired elsewhere. In the meantime, savings often dry up and desperation can set in. In those instances, having a support system in place is crucial to weathering the storm and recovering.
“My situation was better because I had the full support of my wife, Anna,” says Mark Roach, a 39-year-old former IT worker and father who was laid off late last year. “When I told her I got laid off, she just said, ‘Well, you know what you have to do.’ If she was fearful, she really didn’t show it.”
Roach, though, was scared. He had been bored with his former job, but it provided security for his family. He’d married Anna less than a year before the ax fell at his company, and they were pregnant with their daughter when he was called in and told he was being let go. He also has another son from a previous marriage. Roach was watching a nearly 20-year career and a six-figure salary disappear as his family was expanding.
A severance package and retirement savings kept them afloat financially, but emotionally it was a different story.
“Fear just overtook me. I didn’t want to lose everything that I had for all these years,” Roach says. It took two months for him to plot out his next move, starting a medical billings company, rather than leaving his fate up to corporate America once again. The road has been bumpy; he now spends his time planning for meetings to lure new clients and pushing down the occasional worry about when his company will yield the kind of salary he once made as an employee.
“If I were doing this alone,” he says, “I probably would’ve returned to the corporate world. I really wouldn’t have had a choice. I would’ve had to take care of my family.”