If I could change one thing about my career, it would be my timing. I graduated from college in 2009 and entered the workforce at the height of the 2008-2009 recession, the largest economic upheaval since the Great Depression. That year there were 35% fewer jobs for new college graduates like me, and the unemployment rate hit 10%. The recession lasted 18 months, and during that time, millennials did our best to find work in a market that simply wasn’t hiring.
It took me over a year to find my first full-time job, and in the 11 years since, I have held 10 full-time gigs at seven different companies across multiple industries. To date, I have worked in offices, at agencies, in newsrooms, and on television shows. I have seen what a post-recession workforce looks like, and it is bleak. Mad Max has enjoyed more relaxing rides.
Those early post-grad years were a grind, but I didn’t leave empty-handed—and neither will you, Gen Z, as you navigate the coronavirus pandemic and the economic downturn that’s come with it. The 2008 crisis forced me to become creative and agile and I’m still grateful for the work habits I formed and realizations I came to during that period. My generation survived, and I believe yours is even better equipped than ours was. You have already proven yourselves resilient, and you’ll need that grit to muddle through the next few years.
“I feel like sometimes these tragedies occur, but then once we’re on the other side of it, we don’t keep talking,” says Jess Hopkins, a certified life and career coach who works primarily with millennials. “We don’t continue the conversation to help the next generation prepare for something like this.”
So let’s talk about it. As our gift to you, born from years of suffering and successes, here are some millennial suggestions for how you folks in Gen Z can survive this recession, thrive in your careers, and maybe have a little more fun in the process.
1. Embrace Odd Jobs And Part-Time Work While You Look For Your First “Real” Job
Four years of college didn’t prepare me for job searching in a recession. I was scared of not being able to afford my student loans, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to lock down something full-time and stable. I was so focused on finding a “real” job, I wasn’t able to see the value in the part-time and temporary jobs I had.
Ali Breen, career coach for millennials, thinks people underestimate the benefits of part-time gigs. If your employment search is as arduous as mine was, she recommends embracing odd jobs. It’s better “to do something temporary, instead of taking something permanent that you feel guilty leaving because they’ve invested in your onboarding.” My friend, writer and comic Lynn Molly agrees. Her chief post-grad regret is that “I went after the job that was immediately going to pay me money, rather than put me on the path I actually wanted.”
The temporary jobs I worked in my early twenties were weird (most notably, the job that required me to affect a fake British accent) but they were also fun and flexible. Free yourself from the idea you need to find something permanent fast, and devote the time and mental energy you save to figuring out what you want to do in the long term and how to get there, even if it takes a little longer.
2. Go Ahead, Break Up With Your Toxic Job
Of course, not every temporary gig was a winner. My first post-college job was at a daycare center inside a Chicago gym. It was a toxic work environment, but it was the only work environment that would have me, so I stuck it out for over a year. By the end, I was convinced that if I held one more sick baby or interrupted one more yoga class to ask an overdue parent to come collect their kid, they would have to scrape my exploded head off the medicine balls. I needed to know I wouldn’t always feel this miserable, so I picked a random date three months in the future, and scheduled a time to quit.
When that day arrived, I still had student debt, minimal savings and no back-up plan. I had no idea what to do next, but I owed it to myself not to do this anymore. I resigned, then went straight to my temp job where, for the next eight hours, I panicked that I would never make rent again.
“The only recession-proof career,” Breen says, “is one that is resilient and ever-changing.” And the best way to build resilience is to exercise your tolerance for risk. Making an active decision to leave that job in a horrible economy was terrifying. But it also allowed me to set a personal boundary for what I was willing to tolerate from an employer and showed me I could recover from bad situations.
If you’re still in the beginning of your career, give yourself some freedom to take risks, especially in the name of your mental and emotional well-being. The stakes are lower early on, and surviving will give you confidence in yourself and your judgment, which will ultimately help you spot warning signs of toxic situations before you accept a job and find the kind of company that will treat you the way you deserve.
3. Tear Up Your Mental Timeline (If You Haven’t Already)
At multiple points in my career, I was primed for a promotion that never came. It’s not because I didn’t work hard, perform well, or have the right qualifications—it’s because there is a generational bottleneck plaguing the American workforce.
As older generations wait longer to retire, younger ones stagnate beneath them. This is the first time in history there have been five different generations navigating the same workforce at once, and 41% of millennials say they’re finding it difficult to advance. And if we’re stuck, you’re likely to end up jammed somewhere behind us. The pandemic is exacerbating the problem and increasing reluctance to walk away from a steady paycheck, so traffic is basically bumper-to-Boomer out here.
All that’s to say that your career might not proceed on the exact timeline you imagined, so try not to tie your expectations and feelings of self-worth to strict milestones. It’s an unfair situation, and it’s easy to stew in the burnout and bitterness—come on in, the water’s warm! But there is an upside to the mental and emotional stresses you’re experiencing. Research published in 2013 from Emory University suggests that people who graduate into difficult economies tend to be happier in their jobs long term and more grateful for their careers.
4. Invest In Yourself (Not Just With Money, But With Time and Effort)
When you’re unemployed (or underemployed) in a recession, time is the one resource you won’t run out of. How you choose to spend that time matters.
“If you’re not in a position to improve on the experience on your resume because you can’t get a job,” Hopkins says, “that would leave one option, which is to acquire as many skills as you can.”
The pandemic has limited the ways in which you can acquire these skills, but you still have choices. You can sign up for online classes, many of which are free, or remote certification programs. Or if you’re burned out on school, you can use this time to pursue personal projects. One of my creative partners, actress and creator Jaime Lyn Beatty recommends not waiting around for other people to grant you opportunities. Now is the time, she says, to get creative and “make things on your own or with friends.”
5. Don’t Forget Your Social Proof
Millennials developed a reputation for living our lives for social media, but some of this is a learned response to our bad situation. When I couldn’t convince employers or outlets to pay me for my writing, I posted on my Medium account. I used these pieces as samples, and they helped build the foundations of my freelance career.
Breen calls this “social proof” and says it’s not enough to explore and develop new strengths—you also need to convert them into examples and evidence of your abilities and interests for potential employers. “Maybe you want to be working on climate change,” she says, “but you have very little experience that is tangible on a resume. But you have the best garden on your tiny, four-by-four deck. That is social proof that you actually care about food sustainability. Now you have something to give them.”
Your social proof needs to be accessible to employers, and it needs to live in a space you trust yourself to frequent and update. For some that means staying current on LinkedIn or building a personal website; for others it means adding a highlighted collection to your Instagram stories or creating a thread under your pinned Tweet to link back to your work.
Multiple surveys show that most recruiters will check your social media profiles or Google you during the interview process. You can use this fact to your benefit. Build the best version of yourself online and introduce them to that person.
6. Lean Into the Instability and Explore
My shortest-lived job was at a regional branch of a giant media company, a position I took because I thought it would guarantee me stability. I worked there for five months before the company lost both of their key regional clients, laid everyone off, and dissolved the whole office. I left with nothing, except a predilection toward breaking out in a cold sweat if someone even hints at an all-company meeting.
I’ve spent hours during quarantine badgering my therapist, Stefanie Greenfield, about how to handle the pandemic era. During unstable times, she says, it’s best to prioritize self-evaluation and self-discovery. She urges all of us to lean into the discomfort, pointing out that “while times around us may be uncertain, figuring out your personal passions and purpose in life is not dependent on the political climate or economic situation.”
I didn’t know who I was when I graduated, and Hopkins says the majority of recent graduates don’t possess enough world experience to accurately determine their strengths or passions. She recommends taking a generalist approach by dabbling in lots of things and seeing “what pushes that passion button.”
I learned early on that workforce stability no longer exists, which is scary. But the fact that I couldn’t rely on a certain, steady path forced me to try lots of things, which in turn helped me figure out what I really wanted to do (and what I really didn’t). Breen says you should always be asking yourself and discovering “what you want, and checking in again and again.”
7. Embrace Your Geographic Freedom
It took me six years from the time I graduated to secure my first job in TV, the first job I really wanted. I went to school for screenwriting, but when the recession hit, I put Los Angeles on hold, and moved to the Midwest to save money. Of all the decisions I made in my twenties, this is the one I regret least. It took me longer to start my career than I would have imagined at 22, but I was able to make a big dent in my debt. And when you consider that 86% of people surveyed list student debt as a major source of stress, this is not an insignificant way to boost your happiness in your early twenties.
This pandemic will have disastrous consequences, but one of the upsides is a renewed focus on remote work. The job I wanted required me to live in a specific city, but if this trend continues, your generation can live wherever. You can move back in with your parents for as long as it takes to get up on your feet. You can uproot to a cheaper area to save money, or because you feel it’s more reflective of the lifestyle you envision for yourself—and hopefully you can do it without diminishing your career prospects.
8. Make Connections, Not Comparisons
This is the most fractured our workforce has ever been, and the best way to combat the isolation is by staying connected. “Band together with your friends as much as possible,” my college friend and TV writer Max Kessler says. “You are not on an island, you do not have to attack anything in your life alone.”
And try to look to your friends as a source of strength and comfort, rather than a yardstick to measure yourself against. “I wish I spent less energy comparing my successes to my peers,” Greenfield says. “I felt down on myself for not being able to land a job quickly. And when I did land a job I compared my salary to the average for my field which then internalized into a sense of worth (or lack thereof).”
COVID-19 has taken socializing and networking online, a boost for people who struggle to reach out and a normalizer for making and keeping up connections no matter where you are. That means you can find mutual support with friends anywhere, anytime. It also means you can forge professional connections wherever you may be. Now is the time to push past passively following people on Twitter and connect with mentors and thought leaders, Breen says. “Be brave, actually engage,” she says. “Find people you admire, and use the technology at our fingertips to make connections, because most people don’t.”
I wanted to share the early years of my career with you not because they’re special, but because they’re normal. Every person I spoke to for this story has sent emails and applications and never heard back. We’re still crying over jobs we don’t like and sacrificing to do the work we care about. But we made it through the gloomy days of the recession we graduated into and you will, too, I promise. We’re excited to meet you in the workplace—whenever meeting people becomes a thing again.