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Laid-off financiers' new outlook

Wall Streeters take a look at life outside a pressurized career.

NEW YORK - Eighteen months without a job. Fourteen months. Twelve.

It's been a long, dry spell for many of the suit-clad Wall Streeters who were handed their pink slips before hardly anyone was talking recovery.

But sit down with a handful of ex-finance-industry workers volunteering to work for free as interns in a city-sponsored retraining program, and they seem almost . . . happy.

In the current economy, it's an uncommon reaction to the loss of a job. But for some finance workers, many of whom spent years working insane hours at high-pressure jobs - often at the expense of more personal passions - the sudden stop has offered a time to reflect and reconsider.

Thrust off the rat-race treadmill, some are thinking hard about how and whether they want to get back on.

"It's really easy when you take that first job and you start building some work experience, to get stuck in a pattern," said Matt Gatto, a former Lehman Bros. investment manager.

Gatto, 35, called the 14 months he's been jobless "exciting" and "liberating."

Personal values

After years of doing little more than work, the onetime philosophy major has taken over much of the child care for his 2-year-old son. He's finished his MBA, gone back to the gym, and learned how to cook. And he has decided that when he does head back to the office, he wants a professional life that's aligned with his personal values - in the nonprofit world or in a company focused on social change.

Successful spouses, princely savings, and lucrative severance packages have made this sort of self-exploration an attainable luxury for some laid-off finance sector employees.

For Agatha Melvin, the roughly 18 months she has been unemployed have offered the global-operations consultant a chance to look ahead.

Back when she was working 15-hour days, she had no clear vision of her future. In what she calls the "pressurized environment" of finance, she had little time to think at all. Now, after living off her savings for a year and a half, she said she has a renewed sense of what's important.

She may go back to working long days, but she will be carefully considering whether the work is satisfying enough to be worth the hours she pours into it. This time, she'll be evaluating job offers on more than money.

After all, she said, "time is a commodity you can never get back."

Sense of freedom

Two decades after Arnold Chu made the transition from working in aerospace to applying his math skills to the world of finance, he is again planning for a transition after being laid off from his job as a manager last year. His year of unemployment has been a period of emotional highs and lows, he said, but he, too, has found it freeing.

"The benefit of uncertainty is you're not locked into something already," he said. "That's one of the liberating aspects of it."

Finance workers, even those who have seen departments decimated and their entire industry upturned, may find it easier than most to embrace uncertainty, said Caitlin Zaloom, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University who has studied the culture of Wall Street.

"It's already how they understand themselves, to be risk-takers," said Zaloom. "To get laid off may just be integrated into a narrative of profit and loss that they have dealt with day in and day out on Wall Street."

As Chu looks to carve a place for himself in the new financial landscape, he said, in some ways, he is grateful for the disruption in his life.

"If you're coasting along, there's less challenges," said Chu, who along with his colleagues declined to say how much he made before he was laid off.

Henry Chalian has seized hold of his eight months without a job to, in effect, go back to school. The former relationship manager has attended seminars at JP Morgan's outplacement center for laid-off employees.

He was admitted to an intensive two-week course at Columbia Business School. And now he's participating in JumpStart NYC, the city Economic Development Corp.'s program to prepare finance professionals to work with start-ups.

"I'm sort of getting a master's in my career," said the 41-year-old, who already has a graduate degree in comparative politics.

After the unexpected timeout, though, Chalian said he feels ready to return to some consistency.

"Right now, stability does matter, because the last few years have been really volatile," he said.