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How Gen Z can succeed during a recession, from a millennial who’s been there

The current pandemic is unprecedented, but there are some clear economic lessons to be learned from the 2008 financial crisis.

How Gen Z can succeed during a recession, from a millennial who’s been there
[Photo: Szilas in the Teylers Museum/Wikimedia Commons]

Dear recent college graduates, interns, and entry-level workers,

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I see you. You’ve had a lot to process over the past week. As the coronavirus spreads across America, grinding the economy to a halt, it’s dawning on you exactly how bad the looming recession will be. You’re worried that as the newest members of the workforce, you’ll be among the first to be retrenched. Perhaps you, or someone you love, has already been laid off. The future has never looked more uncertain.

The current crisis is unprecedented, and I can’t pretend to understand what you’re experiencing. Economists are struggling to predict how the next few months and years will play out. It will depend, in part, on how quickly we are able to lower the spread of the coronavirus in the United States. But as someone who entered the job market after the Great Recession, I have an inkling of what it is like to approach your career with dread and apprehension, rather than excitement. And besides the insight that comes from living through it, I’ve spent two years delving into social science research to better understand how economic downturns can impact a person’s career for my forthcoming book, The Rocket Years: How Your Twenties Launch The Rest of Your Life.

Here’s what I can tell you: There’s no doubt that millennials’ lives were permanently altered by the financial crisis. It negatively impacted our lifelong earnings, debt, and savings. Many of us spent years job-hopping and doing gig work in our quest to find stable careers that made us happy. But here’s the thing: We survived it. Most of us did end up in long-term, meaningful careers. It just took a bit longer for us to get here. We’re here to tell the tale and offer you our support.

What turbulence taught me

Even though the first few years of my career were rocky, I am grateful that I learned some important skills in that period. I developed grit as I kept pushing to find a job that did more than pay the bills, but also aligned with my values and passions. I figured out how to be resourceful when I could not find a job as a professor—which had been my career goal for a decade—after two intense years of searching. Ultimately, I learned to be resilient, an important skill at a time when the future seems increasingly unpredictable. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, economists predicted that global warming would wreak havoc upon the economy, so I am glad that I developed nimbleness and grit early on.

I also have some good news. A decade after the crisis, the vast majority of millennials have settled into stable, long-term jobs. As of January 2018, 70% of workers between the ages of 22 and 37 had been with their current employer for 13 months, and 28.8% of those between the ages of 25 and 34 had been with their employers for at least five years. It’s not all rosy, of course. Our net worth is lower than older generations at our age and it took us longer for us to buy houses. But the Great Recession did not completely derail our careers.

In fact, many of us have higher standards when it comes to taking a job than older generations. Surveys show that while boomers prioritize compensation when it comes to work, money doesn’t even make the top five things millennials care about: We’re far more interested in whether a job is interesting, how much we’ll learn and grow, and whether we’ll have a good boss. Even though the economy was bad, we let these values about work continue to guide us. And today, many of us have found our dream jobs.

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Here is some evidence-based advice as you as launch your career at a time of economic turmoil:

Job-hopping and gig work are assets

During the recession, when it became clear that I would not be able to get a job in academia, I felt like I had to scramble to find another career that I would love as much. I also had to pay the bills. So my life was involved taking lots of short-term positions, including internships at PR firms to temp positions at nonprofits. I also earned money by transcribing interviews for journalists and then, eventually, doing freelance writing.

Creating this kind of patchwork of jobs was common among millennials who graduated during the Great Recession. Many companies went on hiring freezes or significantly cut down on the number of full-time hires. But to continue operating, they would hire people on either short-term contracts or as freelancers. Some companies brought in more interns or entry-level workers, because they are generally cheaper. In many ways, this was unfair and exploitative; it took advantage of how desperate workers were for any sort of income and experience. But for those of us who were early on in our careers, it pushed us to get a wide range of experience in a short period of time, which was helpful as we figured out what we wanted to do with our lives.

For someone like me, who enjoys the feeling of stability, it felt unpleasant to be in a constant state of flux. I felt like I was always hustling. But looking back, I feel fortunate that we now live in a time when employers don’t hold it against us if we hop between jobs early in our careers. In fact, research shows that recruiters expect it and many value a job candidates’ diversity of experiences.

Gig work certainly has a dark side; many jobs in the gig economy are exploitative to workers. It’s crucial to go into these jobs with your eyes open. Consider using freelance positions to gain experience and hourly gig jobs as a stopgap solution to paying your bills during a downturn. But as you’re doing this, you should also work toward stable, well-paying work. When you are able, give up low-paying gig jobs to focus on polishing up your résumé and applying for the job you’re really excited about.

Don’t give up on the dream job

I believe you can use job-hopping and gig work to your advantage. When you start out your career, you still don’t know that much about yourself and the kind of work you’ll enjoy. If you are thoughtful about it, you can use short-term positions to teach you about yourself and what is out there for you in the workplace. I learned something from each of my jobs, including what good and bad management looks like, the hours of the day when I am most productive, and skills like web design and keeping spreadsheets in order.

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But most importantly, I learned through these job-hopping, gig-working years that I love writing. I began to see that one of the things that drew me to academia was the long hours of solitary writing, and this was something I could do in other professions, namely journalism. Six years ago, I became a full-time staff writer here at Fast Company, and I still wake up every day excited about all the stories I’ll get to write.

Millennials and Gen Z workers have been raised with the idea that we should pursue our dream job. But here’s something you don’t hear as often: There is not just one dream job out there for you. There’s not just one kind of work you’ll love. If you’re open-minded, even in the midst of economic turbulence, you’ll find many kinds of work that give you meaning and making you happy.

You have time on your side

My point is this: It’s easy to worry that you’ll be stuck in this period of limbo forever. But the economy is always in flux. Things were bad in 2008, but in the next few years, companies began to hire again. A decade later, the economic outlook was sunnier. We don’t know exactly what kind of recession we’ll be dealing with right now, but what we do know is that we will eventually get out of it.

For younger workers like you, this is a good thing. You have a long time horizon to build your career. Unlike those who are further along in their professions, you haven’t wedded yourself to a particular job title or industry. You can be flexible and open to new opportunities.

We need to prepare ourselves emotionally. The next few months are not going to be easy for any of us. I urge you to believe in yourself and your capacity to bounce back from disappointment and struggle. We got through the last recession. We’ll get through the next one, too.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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