Updated: Jul 7, 2020
It doesn’t come up frequently in conversations, but when it does, there is an immediate fleeting moment of kinship.
“What year did you graduate?”
“Ahhhhh. Yeah. Me too. I get it.”
Then there is a small shake of the head, a shrug of the shoulders. Unspoken solidarity. That one fact creates an instant bond for anyone who lived through it.
While I’m sure it was no walk in the park for the class of 2009 or 2010 for that matter, there was something so deeply scarring to be completely broadsided by global catastrophe at that particular psychological moment. Everything we thought about the world, imagined about the security we had earned ourselves through hard work and making “all the right choices”, ripped away and replaced with dire uncertainty. We were poised to take our first fragile steps into the world, only to have the world collapse inexplicably around us.
I deeply feel the acute loss for the class of 2020. We at least had the one last glorious moment of ignorant bliss at graduation and the long summer that followed before everything was turned upside-down. Like us, their internships and job offers are being rescinded. They are looking down the barrel of a “once in a lifetime economic depression” without a clear sense of how to pull the pieces together. Future gutted, or at minimum derailed, by something completely not in their control. But, hey, at least we got the big party first.
So maybe, there is something the Class of 2008 can give you, Class of 2020. Call it a graduation present. The experience that the class of 2008 had, and the subsequent choices we made as a tiny micro-generation has impacted every facet of our lives, from our relationships, to careers, and especially our financial future. There were lessons we learned about how to make the best of the undeniably shitty circumstances we were dealt and choices we made that made it much much worse. It has shaped us in good ways and bad, but by and large it has added a small, maybe imperceptible shadow of caution on our psyche.
In the fall of 2008 I jauntily packed up my small bundle of belongings, my (now ridiculous) Political History Diploma that I got from a very fancy-shmancy school, and moved to New York City.
I remember listening to WNYC as I moved into my first apartment; there were odd rumblings about some housing bubble or mortgages or something equally foreign to me.
The next few years were a bloodbath. I had a small cadre of friends in the city and we met in dark bars over cheap beers and we watched each other careers “fail to thrive”. I had a brilliant Russian Lit major friend who scored a coveted “unpaid internship” at Condé Nast and worked two jobs on top of his full time internship to try to scrap by. His apartment had rats, he lived with no heat. He eventually suffered some health complications due to malnutrition and had to leave the city.
I had a partner so I was lucky to be able to split my one bedroom in Queens and scrape by while I tried to find work, but the job market was bleak. All of the organizations that I had researched that had open positions were closing or instituting hiring freezes.
I took a job at a weird Romanian cafe, but they soon had to close down as well. I ended up smelting gold in an illegal backroom refinery in the Diamond District (it’s a long story) and then took on volunteer roles at organizations I hoped would hire me in the future. Eventually, I landed a job I absolutely loved. It was hard and didn’t pay great but it set me on a path for my future career.
So, on the occasion of your graduation, I would like to share some strategies and tips for surviving as a new grad in a piss-poor economy.
HOW TO NETWORK LIKE YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT
Formal channels of hiring may all grind to a halt-- people won’t be posting on job boards or updating their websites, but there ARE jobs. You will not get them sitting at home applying. I applied to 150 jobs when I graduated and heard back from 2, 1 interview, 0 jobs.
All of the jobs that people were getting were through personal connections. If you were like me, you may not have family ties but you have your two feet, a smile, and a can-do attitude. Tell every person you meet that you are looking for a job -- the corner store people, go to church (even if you haven’t been in years), go to free meet-ups. Dress nicely, smile, ask questions, but alway put it out there that you are looking for a job.
I actually got my gold-smelting gig because the Turkish corner-store owner had a friend of a friend and he wanted to help me out. That takes me to my second point, you may have to lower your standards for what job “you deserve”, but luckily, no job is beneath you! All jobs can help you grow.
WEIRD JOBS BUILD CHARACTER...AND CAREERS
When I graduated, I had a vision for the job I wanted to have. I wanted to have a job that was changing the world using innovative strategies like social entrepreneurship and circular economies. Really cutting edge, socially disruptive organizations like Sustainable South Bronx.
Gold smelting was not on that list. Even though I was so happy to have a paying job, I was secretly kind of embarrassed or felt that I was above it -- what of my fancy degree!? What of my hours in the library?!
But every job can be leveraged for learning. Working in the Diamond District, I toughened up. I learned to be a little more streetwise and business savvy. It was a startup and I was employee number one so I taught myself how to set up an eCommerce site, develop a marketing campaign from the ground up, track sales, negotiate with partners. When it was clear that this was going to be my job for a while, I threw my heart into it and ended up learning skills that have helped me throughout my life. I gained a mentor who has gone to bat for me many times.
Graduates of 2008 have had a LOT of weird jobs (just ask them!). In an uncertain economy be prepared to have a career path that is not a straight line. Some of your jobs are going to suck. Probably all of your jobs are going to underpay you. But, the good news is, all of them can be leveraged for learning and leadership development. You get out what you put in. So swallow your pride, get your hands dirty, and work your ass off. You are going to have to be smart and a serious workhorse to claw your way back to the earning potential of classes just prior.
DEBT WILL LOOK TEMPTING...BEWARE
Graduates of 2008 went to grad school in droves. It felt like there were no other options. All of the jobs we wanted were asking for a master's degree.
We were lulled into a complacent mindset that taking on grad school debt was just an inevitable part of life. The majority of our entire micro-generation is financially saddled with debt as a result of the choices we made in the depths of an economic crisis, when it felt like the “smart” thing to do.
At the time, I felt like I was not hearing five-alarm-bells about how crippling debt is. So hear me now, dear Class of 2020. Watch out. Grad School during dark times will look appealing. It may feel like a solid investment. But do the calculations, be very wary about getting a degree that will not immediately pay for itself. Currently, my student loan debt is higher than my rent/mortgage payment and it will be probably for the next ten years of my life. I pay the maximum amount and have never missed a payment. My debt has forced me to turn down jobs I really wanted, move cities, strain relationships, and added countless amounts of stress and anxiety.
Even as I try to dish out some tough love, I have some optimism that we have collectively learned some lessons from the hellish fallout of the financial crisis. For the past twelve years my generation has been rabble-rousing and banging on pots about the injustice of unpaid internships and student-loan debt, so awareness is much higher. Our federal economic engines learned some lessons from the 2008 response and have already corrected some of the early missteps.
But more than anything, I want you to know it is going to be ok. It is going to be tough, no doubt, but this experience can be an opportunity to forge your career in the fires of struggle, to be stronger in the long run (please excuse the smelting pun, old habits die hard).