THE BLOG
08/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

From Lehman to Landscaping: A Laid-Off Banker, One Year Later

The following "as told to" profile was shared with the author on conditions of anonymity so as to protect future job prospects of the person whose story appears below.

I was seduced, and then I was dumped.

So goes the tale of my short-lived stint as an investment banker. It ended almost exactly a year ago, when I became one of the earliest lay-offs in our ongoing recession.

I was seduced by the prestige. Like most graduating seniors who decide to become investment bankers, I had no clue what the job was really about. It's ironic considering recruiters spend hours at the top universities leading sessions titled "What Is Investment Banking?" I went to those sessions and ate the fancy hors d'oeuvre but left having grasped little beyond the high starting salaries and the aura of success.

Two years ago, as a graduating college senior, that was enough to lure me into investment banking at Lehman Brothers. Then, as soon as I started the job, a different reality set in. I was quickly absorbed into the culture of work for work's sake -- to the tune of 90-hour weeks. It was less about what we were working on than that we were projecting an aura of busyness. My buddies and I started ironically asking each other, "Hey, man, you banking hard?" and calling each other by nicknames like Ace, Top Gun, and The Bank.

In our limited hours outside the office, the job still had cache. On Friday nights after work, the VPs would sometimes take the analysts out to fancy clubs like Pink Elephant or Tenjune and order us $350 bottles of Grey Goose. Occasionally, the two or three VPs with us would stand up and go before everyone else, leaving us with the bill. All of the analysts would look around at each other like, "Who the hell is going to pay for this?"

Those sorts of experiences helped perpetuate the myth of the banking lifestyle. I felt cool because of my job, even though I didn't like the job itself.

By this time last year, news had been swirling at Lehman for several months that there was going to be a round of lay-offs. I was only a year out of school and on the make -- I never seriously considered that I might be fired.

In the second to last week of May, at 9:00 a.m. on a Monday, morning my Blackberry buzzed. It was an email without a subject line from the head of analysts for Human Resources. All it said was, "Could you pls swing by? Thx." That's not exactly the tone of an email you expect to receive if you're going to be fired. My heart still started pounding.

The woman who had sent me the email was 40 years old and pretty, but had logged too many hours in a tanning bed. When I walked into her office, she gave one of those fake caring looks that pretends to say, "Aww, come here, sweetie." I took a seat.

"You know it's a really tough economy," she said, "and unfortunately we're going to have to let you go."

The news shouldn't have shocked me, but I suddenly felt like I wasn't getting enough oxygen to my head.

"Are you serious?" I said, breathlessly. "But why? I mean -- "

"I can't go into any specifics," she told me. "But you will be getting severance."

I must have looked bewildered, because she then said to me in a tone more automated than sincere, "Do you need some time? Why don't you give yourself a few minutes."

She put her head down to jot something on a piece of paper, so that I was staring into her blond highlights.

I knew I needed to calm down, so I said, "Yeah, I guess I do need a minute," to which she immediately looked back up and said, "Oh, you'll be fine, you don't actually need a minute." There were other people to fire, and she was on a tight schedule. She flashed me a chilling smile, worthy of Nurse Ratched, and shooed me toward a room to pick up my severance contract.

The contract said I was to receive three months pay and my full bonus. It came out to $40,000 -- a lot of money, I know. But in the moment, the severance package did little to distract me from my embarrassment. Getting laid off was was like introducing a beautiful new girlfriend to all of your buddies, and the next time they ask about her, having to say, "Yeah, um, she's moved on."

I was allowed go say goodbye to everyone, which they don't always let you do. The other analysts thought I was joking when I told them the news: "Yeah, okay, man, that's not funny, people are actually getting laid off." Then they could see that I wasn't kidding.

Just as we're led to think that investment banking is some epitome of success, we're also conditioned to think losing one of these jobs is some awful failure. If people had responded to me like, "Dude, it's cool, you're only 23, so don't sweat it," I would have been fine, but people were crying when I told them.

After several minutes of making my way around the office, I managed to force a smile on my face -- an attempt to reassure my friends that I was okay. When I then told an associate that I had just been laid off, the first thing he said to me was, "Then why are you smiling?" It was as though he wanted me to look more devastated.

After losing my job, I watched Lehman's stock price keep going down until the whole ship went under last September. I needed a new source of income, so at the end of the summer, I moved to Dublin, Ohio to work for a lawn care company. My bosses don't create unnecessary work for me anymore, and I'm home at a reasonable hour. I know my new job isn't exactly off the beaten path, but I also know you couldn't pay most of the kids who were at Lehman to come work for a lawn company in Ohio. The prestige factor, I am aware, is nil.

When I used to tell people I worked for a New York investment bank, they would say, "Wow -- impressive!" and I would watch as they conjured images of downtown skyskrapers and high-priced nights out. The truth is, I never would have had the courage to say, "I quit," but I'm not sorry to have heard the words, "You're fired."

P.G. Sittenfeld is a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University and is working on a nonfiction book titled "The Happiest Person You Know."