Money

What's It Like to Graduate Into a Recession? We Asked the Class of 2009

The coronavirus has sparked an economic freefall. People who graduated a decade ago tell the class of 2020 what to expect.
April 2, 2020, 1:51pm
students wearing caps at graduation ceremony
Carolyn Lagattuta/Stocksy

People who graduated college between 2007 and 2011 entered an uncertain world. Most had started school expecting to end their senior years with job offers, and plans to sign leases on apartments in new cities, away from their parents and college towns. But then the financial crisis struck. Suddenly entire industries were decimated, and hiring freezes meant that many of the industries that managed to survive weren’t hiring recent graduates—or anyone at all.

Millions of recent grads had to recalculate: They moved back in with family, took jobs entirely unrelated to their career aspirations, and cobbled together what they could in order to pay bills. Little by little, things changed. The economy began to recover. Jobs opened up. Part-time unpaid gigs turned into full-time work. For many, full-time work turned into a career.

The students poised to graduate this spring find themselves in a similar position, though right now many of them may find it impossible to imagine how they will come out the other side. The coronavirus pandemic has triggered an unprecedented recession, bringing the United States economy to a halt. The world they’ll face come May and June will look dramatically different than the one Obama-era recession grads did a decade ago. The side jobs they might have otherwise turned to—serving, bartending—to make ends meet have been foreclosed by the measures required to stop the spread of the virus, and dozens of other industries have come to a complete standstill.

Still, the people who graduated during the last economic recession believe there are some aspects of their experience to which the class of 2020 will be able to relate. VICE asked them to share their best advice.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Caroline Contillo, Hunter College, New York, 2010

My experience has taught me that I'm not actually that valuable to capitalism. If I derive my self-worth from how marketable I am, I’d feel awful.

I was doing a yearlong internship at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation as part of a scholarship program for public service professionals. We were told that people from previous years had gone on to work at the DEC and that we would be welcome to turn our internship into a job after graduation if we took the civil service exam. Unfortunately, towards the end of the school year we found out that due to the financial collapse, there was a state-wide hiring freeze.

To make rent, I worked as a personal assistant, at [a] farmer's market, babysat, worked as a shipping clerk at a clothing company, waited tables, did office admin work for a documentary film company, did event planning, audio transcription, and sold clothes on eBay. Pretty much anything I could find through Craigslist or friends.

When the Occupy Movement started in Zuccotti Park in 2011 I was amazed to finally meet so many other people who had encountered similar disappointments. I really fell for the kind of American individualism that made me feel like my inability to find stable employment with benefits was a personal failing. But now I was meeting and organizing with other people who had faced similar challenges and were using that as motivation to change things.

My most recent job was as a front desk coordinator at a music school, which I left in February right before the pandemic became a problem; all of my former coworkers were let go. I have no idea what the future holds for me in terms of work. But at this point I’m pretty used to that. My experience has taught me that I'm not actually that valuable to capitalism. If I derive my self-worth from how marketable I am, I’d feel awful. So I've had to make sure my own sense of worth comes from elsewhere, which is in itself very difficult. But it’s easier when you surround yourself with others who value things like care and justice.

If the adults and systems you thought you could rely on are not coming through right now, know that there are people out there who are very passionate about working together to make sure others do not fall through the cracks. Use your frustration, sadness and anger to connect with those people and push for a change to a system that would have such inequality baked into it that slowing down to care for each other during a pandemic would crash the entire thing.

Graduating into a recession is going to be difficult. Don't be ashamed if your résumé looks like chaos. Learn to let go of expectations of what your career should look like. It's not [going to be] good, or fair, but it can possibly open you up to other ways of being that don't rely so heavily on a system that was designed to reward a few at the expense of many.

John Wilmes, University of Iowa, Iowa, 2009

Don’t listen to your parents. They grew up in a fundamentally different economy and it took me and most people of my generation several years to realize they didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about.

I vividly remember my creative writing professor coming into class 20 minutes late on the day the stock market crashed in 2008, looking me right in the eye, and telling me to remember this moment. I was an English major, so I wasn’t really looking at a very straightforward career path anyway. The destabilized economy just compounded that.

After graduation I took a temp job at a law firm for a few months, and I would’ve been happy to take a permanent position there, but there weren’t any jobs available. After that I took a job at a bookstore, which didn’t pay much, and started applying to grad schools, because I didn’t know what else to do. I think generally it’s better to go to grad school several years after undergrad, but that wasn’t an option for me because I couldn’t find traditional job placement. Now I’m an English professor and writer based in Chicago.

A few things: Don’t listen to your parents. They grew up in a fundamentally different economy and it took me and most people of my generation several years to realize they didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about. Something else people should keep in mind when there is a recession like the one I graduated into is that some things go back to normal and some things don’t. Some industries may be permanently smaller than they are now. And [lastly], students who are going through this right now have a stronger understanding of organizing and striking. Collective action is what we need to get out of this.

During my lecture this morning, one of my students asked me whether I think the positive effects on the climate that are resulting from quarantine will affect how we address climate change moving forward. It was just interesting to me that that’s where his emphasis was. It reminded me that this generation is going to come up with solutions and their own takeaways from this. Their perspective is going to be fundamentally different and more useful than anything we can think of.

Lyz Mancini, St. John Fisher College, New York, 2008

I think I’m unusual in that I ended up in the same field I went to school for. Try everything because you never know—you could stumble into something you really love.

I graduated with the dream of writing for a magazine in New York, like every other communications major [at that time]. We were constantly told to steel ourselves, that there would likely not be jobs waiting for us come June. I had almost six figures in student loan debt looming, and the only responsible option it seemed was to move home, find whatever job I could, and try to save money.

I was always really obsessed with magazines growing up, and my dream was to work at CosmoGirl. In the years leading up to 2008, that was the idea: you leave college with a job. That narrative really started to change my junior year. It went from you get a job after college to there aren’t any jobs—especially for journalism at that point.

I ended up moving to New York anyway, and decided to figure it out from there. I took an unpaid internship at Nylon four days a week, and then I waitressed on the side. I had two other unpaid internships, but after a while I got sick of not getting paid so I made a hard pivot to working at an immigration law firm for four years. I was still writing, it was just legal writing. But it made me remember how much I loved it so I started freelancing for xoJane and Refinery29 [Editor's note: Refinery29 is now part of Vice Media Group]. Eventually I found my way to branded [content] and copywriting, and now I work at Real Simple.

I think I’m unusual in that I ended up in the same field I went to school for. I would say try everything because you never know—you could stumble into something you really love and that feels like you. I personally believe you’ll end up where you wanted to go eventually. The work you want to be doing might be something you can only do on the side for now, but eventually you’ll get to the point where it can be your main hustle.

Beck Simo, Marquette University, Wisconsin, 2010

Take anything that’s even a little related to what you want to be doing.

I majored in theater arts and elementary education. Of course theatre companies were operating at bare bones at this time, so I had little hope of finding work in that sector. A lot of school districts had increased class sizes and stopped replacing teachers who left or retired—true hiring freezes—meaning I didn't get a teaching job either.

I moved back in with my parents after graduation and would look for jobs every day. I’d go to different school district websites and there would just be nothing. Some days I would find maybe one or two jobs, but you could tell they were being really selective, and they only wanted people with experience, advanced degrees or certifications I didn’t have at that point. I applied to everything I could find and got absolutely nothing.

I worked at a summer camp, but once it was August I wasn’t sure what to do. I taught some toddler classes, and then I found a family to babysit for full time. I also tutored a couple of kids, and so I sort of cobbled together a living for a year out of those things. About a year later, I cold-emailed the principal of my old elementary school and asked her if any of the teachers needed help—I told her I would laminate, make copies, anything. An old teacher of mine [heard about it] and had me come in; she let me teach and work with kids, and that was amazing. A year later they hired me as an aide, and the year after that they hired me to teach. The following year I got hired at the school district where I work now, and got to teach drama. So it did ultimately work out, but it was a long road.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. Do what you need to do to survive. If you can babysit on the side, work at your church and teach Sunday school, volunteer at the library—whatever you can do to keep your head in the game and keep your skills fresh. Take anything that’s even a little related to what you want to be doing.

Stephen Parris, Culinary Institute of America, New York, 2007

Don't forget about your hobbies and side skills. Nurture them however you can.

You go to culinary school and you dream of working in a fancy restaurant, landing nice gigs in the city, and doing individual presentation work and stuff like that. But due to the economic downturn and the long-term effects of 9/11, the New York hotel industry took a real hit, and there weren’t any opportunities in downtown Manhattan right after graduation.

Right after graduation, I worked at Chipotle. After that I got an internship at the Omni Berkshire in Manhattan, but there weren’t really any options [for a full-time job]. So then I went into construction and spent a summer roofing. I always focused on things I liked to do—I liked working on computers so I did some of that too. And that came back to help me. Recently, I got laid off from my job working as a manager for a Panera Bread location [because of the pandemic], but just Saturday evening I got a call from someone whose company I used to work for—I helped them set up a remote office, build their social media presence, set them up on Google drive, all of that—and he offered me my old position back. So now [during the pandemic] I have a job working from home. All of those little computer things I did back in the day, working in the culinary industry all of that time—if it wasn’t for keeping up with those side hobbies I’d be out of job.

Don't forget about your hobbies and side skills. Nurture them however you can: the way I’ve nurtured my passion for cooking is by spoiling people at home, even when I don’t feel like it, so I can keep building my skill set. Some people look down on the commercial culinary industry, like, Oh, you’re going to graduate and then go work at McDonald’s. But commercial kitchens afforded me opportunities, and they helped me pay the bills. I learned to appreciate that. I saw it as a way to work on my skills and learn how to be a manager.

Put 100 percent into what you’re doing no matter what your job is. People want to hire someone who has different strengths and comes from a different perspective, and people look for those qualities in any field.

Wes Yee, Cal State East Bay, California, 2009

Now I'm a hiring manager...One year at a company [or odd job] doesn’t make your career—it’s more about who you are as a person and what your skill set is like

I have to admit I didn’t think about [the economy] very much when I was in school. I was just focused on getting to the finish line, and I thought I would figure it out from there. Then I hit the job market and had to make a big adjustment to hustle mode.

After graduation I moved back in with my mom and would spend my days pulling up every job page I could. Even unpaid jobs were so competitive at the time—I got turned down from multiple unpaid internships because there were so many other people applying, and so few positions open. I would send out hundreds of applications and only a couple would get back to me. I’d had internships in high school, but I didn’t have any professional experience, so applying to jobs and interviewing meant crafting stories around every little side hustle I had—I was a blogger, and I had an eBay store where I sold baseball cards.

I feel like I benefited from really looking at finding a job as a job and treating it like one. I would also suggest having the right expectations and setting expectations with your family. I had a bit of a tiger mom, and there was this idea of, Hey, why aren’t you going out to work every day? Be honest and say, I’m doing the best I can and pursuing whatever opportunities I can, it’s just taking a while. That tempered some of my anxiety about not finding work at the time.

Another thing that helped was finding things that were in my control, like writing on the side—things that keep you working and can help you develop skills and get experience. When the time was right, those things helped make me an attractive candidate.

Now I’m a hiring manager at a tech startup. I’m super sympathetic to any job seekers, not just in a tough economy. I’m lucky in that my company is still planning on hiring this year. There are still good opportunities [for 2020 grads], they just may be a little different. And one year at a company [or odd job] doesn’t make your career—it’s more about who you are as a person and what your skill set is like. You need a résumé to get a job, but I’m not hiring you based solely on what you did last year or the year before; I’m hiring you based on what I think you can do next year or the year after.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.