Last semester, I wrote a history paper on the Great Recession. If you’re a millennial or older reading this, that must be strange — a recession that shaped your young adult lives is barely a memory to me. Today’s Gen Z college students were between 6 and 10 years old during the official start of the recession in the fall of 2008.
I was only 8. My parents definitely felt the pinch of rising gas prices and a plummeting housing and stock market. I watched as many of our neighbors were forced into foreclosure. But even though it made an impression on me, it didn’t make much of a difference in my 8-year-old mind whether or not Lehman Brothers was imploding. As long as I had Barbie movies and dinosaur chicken nuggets, I was happy.
As fate would have it, I’m in my sophomore year of college while another possible recession looms. If it happens as some predict, it will have a significant impact on the next five years of my education and career development. Coincidentally, these next five years are also some of the most important in my life. I’m supposed to be laying the foundations for a successful future: college, grad school, moving to a city to start my career. And although no one expects this recession to reach the extreme lows of the last one, it’s not a comfortable feeling. How can I start building my future if the financial ground suddenly falls out from under me?
It’s comforting to know that others went through this and made it out okay. For firsthand experience and advice, I asked a few 30-something millennials who were in college or recent graduates in 2008 about how they dealt with deep financial uncertainty during the recession, and what their advice would be for my college peers and me.
Millennials’ advice for Gen-Z graduates
How old were you when the Great Recession began in 2008, and were you in college?
Jaime, 35: I was 24 years old in 2008 and no longer in college.
Shelley, 32: I was 20 years old and in my second year of university studying a Bachelor of Arts degree in Graphic Arts at Liverpool John Moores University. 2008 also happened to be the year Liverpool was awarded the European Capital of Culture and lots of good things were happening across the city. I really don’t think I was concerned with the recession at all at that point, as I was unaware as to how it would impact me directly.
Samantha, 31: I was 20 and a junior turning into a senior. I graduated in the spring of 2009.
Did you struggle to find a job after graduation?
Jaime: No, I didn’t struggle to find a job after college. While in college I worked as a server at an upscale restaurant on Palm Beach. I didn’t view the job as just a serving job, I viewed it as a networking opportunity. So when I was ready to take the next step and start looking for a career, I used the network I had built and landed a job in April 2008. I am currently still working for that same company, starting as a secretary and building a career to my present position as C.O.O.
Shelley: Straight after finishing university in the summer of 2009, I landed a role teaching ceramics at an American summer camp in Pennsylvania. I tried to gain as much experience as possible as well as trying to research the illustration field in the U.S. and share my portfolio and contact information with as many companies as possible. The minute I got home, the reality hit instantly. I’d just had the most amazing summer working and traveling around the U.S., and now I was completely broke and I struggled to find work [in the U.K.].
Realizing the immediate obstacle as a new young graduate trying to find my first position of employment in the middle of the crisis was pretty hard to deal with. I feel it was particularly difficult as an arts graduate. It was tough for my friends and other new graduates up and down the U.K., too. We basically left university with a ton of debt in student loans and no real chance to start…Looking back those couple of months of unemployment were really hard and probably the toughest of my life. I took a role as a barmaid to get me by, but even that position provided no real security as they were unable to offer me consistency and so income fluctuated. I needed a new plan and realized I needed to expand my field.
I always intended on combining working with children and my arts practice at some point. I signed up to a children’s services agency, and before long, I was getting regular work at various early years settings and schools. In 2010, I enrolled back at university, and became an early years professional the following year. The very day of my final test I was offered a full-time role at a fantastic school. For the first time, I felt financially secure. It was during this two-year period that I decided if I couldn’t get desired employment in the creative industries, then I’d create my own position, and so in 2012 I started an entrepreneur program and launched my business, beginning work as a freelance illustrator. Six years later business is still growing strong.
Samantha: 100%. I had an internship in New York City in the summer of 2008, when the recession officially started. My internship was the holy grail internship — they paid me, paid for my apartment and some of my food. I was riding high. I assumed I would walk into an entry level job making 60-70k after graduation. That didn’t happen. I even forewent spring break senior year to try to get a head start on finding a job since things weren’t looking good. It didn’t even matter. No one was hiring. All my contacts told me they couldn’t hire anyone. I was a public relations major and clients at a lot of PR firms were letting go of their contracts, so PR firms were losing a lot of business. After that, I gave myself six weeks to find a job. I moved to DC with a one-way ticket and stayed with friends on couches until I found my job working in PR with the Army, where I’ve been since.
Did you prepare financially when you heard a recession was coming, and how?
Jaime: I didn’t “prepare” financially, since I wasn’t sure in 2008 of what a recession really was. It wasn’t something that was discussed in school or with my peers.
Shelley: If I’m being honest, I was in a student bubble. I definitely don’t remember being too worried about how the recession would affect me, nor was I advised to prepare or be concerned as to the direct impact it could have on my future.
Samantha: Short answer is no. I didn’t prepare — my parents supported me through college and paid for my apartment and credit card. I had a part-time job as an admissions ambassador in college and I didn’t prepare a budget. As soon as I graduated and was responsible for my own credit card and insurance, I realized I needed to budget. I’ve always been frugal, so I didn’t change my spending techniques, but I quickly realized how frugal I had to be. I had to cook instead of going out to eat. It wasn’t until I had a job that I became cognizant of my spending habits.
How did the recession affect your post-grad plans?
Jaime: Surprisingly the recession was in my favor at that time in my life. I was just starting a career in the art, antiques, and jewelry world and had a small housing budget. Because of the housing collapse, it was easier to find more affordable housing since a lot of landlords couldn’t sell they choose to rent. The art, antiques and jewelry market held value in a down stock market.
Shelley: It just wasn’t a reality to go on to post-graduate study. The funding wasn’t available to students at that time and so I only started my Master’s degree last year, almost 10 years after graduating.
Samantha: It definitely affected them. I had planned on living and working in New York City. For PR firms, they were hesitant to hire new people because when a client dropped their contract, the first person hired was the first fired. I had to look into other jobs that I didn’t consider before. It led me to the Department of Defense where I’ve been for 10 years because of the recession. I knew the federal government couldn’t fire me. I planned to only stay for a few years but instead, I stayed and am very, very happy.
If you could give your college self any financial advice, what would it be?
Jaime: In life everything changes. Don’t try and keep up with society. Do what makes you happy and what keeps you stable. Save for the future because you never know what is going to happen.
Shelley: Prepare not just financially, but having a solid plan in place is the key–even if it’s just very short term…Be realistic and focus on the things you can control like budgeting. I consider myself fiercely independent, pretty good at saving and have always been sensible with money, however without even the simplest plan moving forward, anyone can run the risk of not being in control of their financial future which can lead to problems spiralling. Be proactive and seek as much advice as possible so you know the stepping stones of how to get to where you want to go. Ask questions…Do I need to gain industry experience? Do I need to do further studies or to gain new skills/ qualifications in another sector? How will I fund this? Do I need to start saving for this now? Are there any opportunities on offer to me such as scholarships? You may be at college and not know what direction is for you yet, that’s okay too. Have options and most importantly, have a plan.
Samantha: I would learn financial literacy. I wish the University of Florida had, at the time, offered a financial literacy course. Math isn’t my forte but I wish I would’ve learned budgeting, loans and credit and how they intersect. I was lucky to have parents who looked after my financial health and started an IRA (individual retirement account) for me after college to help grow my investments. If you start investing 5,000 a year at 18 or 19 or 20, the money will turn into a couple million dollars by your retirement.
In your opinion, what should today’s college students do to ensure a stable financial future?
Jaime: Don’t overspend. If you don’t have it don’t spend it. Save for the present and the future. Take the job that you might not think is ideal because it could grow into something long term that is. Don’t be afraid to work hard even when you think no one is watching someone is always watching.
Shelley: I would really take advantage of what is to offer at college and seek as much advice as possible from both lecturers and tutors. Carrying out independent research of your field of interest in the current climate will also hugely benefit and prepare you for the real world of employment. Explore career options. Make connections whilst you’re still studying and taking unpaid experiences/interns if necessary will also ensure that when you finish college you have the best possible start.
Samantha: A rainy day fund is essential so that you always have enough liquid assets for emergency situations. I set aside $200 from every single paycheck and live well below my means no matter how much I make. I would also tell someone that it’s important to invest and get in good financial habits early. Having an IRA and maxing it out every year is really important. Putting 5,000 away for the future seems irresponsible when you’re young, but it’s forced me to develop really good habits. Start early by investing in a 401K or mutual fund and put away money with every paycheck, whether that’s investing or putting into savings.
Transitioning to adulthood in an unsure economy
Transitioning from student to mostly-or-fully financially independent adult is hard in a good economy. Under the cloud of a recession, it’s even more important to understand your options, come up with backup plans and manage your finances carefully. College students who expect to graduate during an economic downturn may be in a tougher situation than most, but as many millennials know, it is possible to reach the other side with sharpened financial management skills and the knowledge that you can survive through anything. Learning from others’ successes and mistakes is an essential part of post-grad life. The stories of 2008 can remind today’s college students that they will face challenges, but come out okay.
Julia is a student at the University of Florida.
Image via Unsplash