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What The Last Recession Can Teach Grads About This One


Schools across the Bay Area are back in session — both virtually and in-person. But some are still feeling the effects of COVID-19 on the last school year. Research shows that 2008 graduates are still experiencing impacts of the Great Recession. So what can 2020 graduates expect? 

Recessions tend to happen pretty regularly — there have been twelve in the past hundred years. And it’s happening again in 2020. This recession is different from the last one — it’s paired with a pandemic caused by a totally new virus. There’s so much uncertainty about the future, and new graduates are understandably anxious.

“I mean, I guess my biggest worry is whether I can find a full time job as of now. I try not to stress out too much, because then that will get me super anxious,” says Diana Woo. She just graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in architecture, and it’s been really hard for her to find work.

“All of our peers were like, ‘Oh, wow, we’re set,’ like post graduation, we’re gonna have jobs and be real adults,” she says. “But then COVID hit, and then that’s when things just shut down immediately.”

The really frustrating part is Diana picked architecture as her major, in part, because she thought it would help her find a job after graduating.

“Originally, I wanted to go into fine arts, but at least in the Asian culture, fine arts is still seen as sort of like a taboo major,” Diana explains. “They’re like, ‘What are you gonna do with that degree? Like, will you get a job?’ and all of that stuff. So I tried to compromise with my parents and say, ‘What if I do architecture?’, which is like the sort of midpoint between academia and art.”

It’s not just about finding any employment. Diana is an immigrant, and if she doesn’t find a job in her field of study, she’ll be kicked out of the country.

“My American friends, they have the freedom to do whatever they want,” Diana says. “My international peers and I don’t have that luxury to be like, ‘Oh, maybe I'll just do nothing for a bit, or I’ll work at a cafe, or I’ll go to Trader Joe’s and work as a cashier,’ since that’s illegal for us to do.”

And so she’s sending out resumes. Lots of resumes. It’s something that’s surely familiar to the nearly 4 million new college graduates, and millions more who are entering the workforce right out of high school.

But even when you do finally find that job, the impact of graduating during a recession doesn’t end there. The effects can linger throughout a person’s entire career, according to Emily Bianchi, a professor at Emory University who studies workplace psychology and behavior.

“There is a famous study that found that people who graduated in the recession of the early 1980s earned significantly less than their counterparts who graduated, you know, three or four years later,” she says. “So that study followed people over, you know, 10 or 15 years, and so it's significantly lower earnings.”

"<b>Early career success is hugely predictive of later career success.</b>"

It’s an idea called “Career Scarring.” Emily says that if you’re younger, like just coming out of college, a recession is likely to hit you harder — and stick with you.

“Early career success is hugely predictive of later career success,” she explains. “So launching off on the right foot is incredibly important. And recessions really make that hard to do.”

And there are impacts beyond earnings.

“People who graduate in recessions tend to be much more cautious, more risk averse,” Emily says. “It’s a mentality that stays with you.”

None of this is great news for Diana. But, she’s certainly not the first to go through this. Plenty of older graduates had a similar experience, and may even have some advice. We decided to test this hypothesis — and play matchmaker — by connecting them over video chat.

Elizabeth Cohn-Martin graduated from UC Berkeley with a major in architecture. Just like Diana. But she graduated in 2009, 11 years earlier. Elizabeth similarly chose architecture because it felt like a balance between the humanities and hard sciences. And like Diana, she graduated to find most of her peers scrambling for work.

“They were continuously, continuously, going through application processes and just, like, slamming out resumes, slamming out work samples as much as they could,” she explains.

“So what was it like for you, graduating into the recession?” Diana asks.

“When I graduated I was absolutely stressed by the idea of finding work in general,” Elizabeth says. “2008 was obviously really, really rough. 2009 we were still feeling it. We didn’t come back to a sense of normalcy at least for a couple of years there.”

But it wasn’t all bad.

“There’s a little bit of a blessing,” Elizabeth says. “And I had this amazing flexibility that some people might get anxious about in their schedule, in their timeframe.”

She turned to volunteer work and academic research. And she took time away from architecture to focus on working with a pilates studio, which has become a lifelong passion. If only Elizabeth had graduated a year earlier, things could have been very different. But at the same time, she might have been giving some experiences up if she had taken that other path. Emily’s research looks at exactly that.

“When I looked across three different samples, huge large samples of Americans, I found that the higher the unemployment rate was when you first began your career, the more satisfied you were with your current job,” she explains.

"<b>The higher the unemployment rate was when you first began your career, the more satisfied you were with your current job.</b>"

It sounds counterintuitive — the same people who have lower earnings are also the happiest in their jobs? But there is a ton of research showing that the link between income and wellbeing is actually really weak. 

“Under a certain point, below $75,000, income does a pretty good job of predicting happiness,” Emily says, “but after that point, it does a very poor job. After our central needs are met, that greater income does not predict greater happiness.”

There are a bunch of factors besides your salary that impact how much you enjoy your work. I asked her if it basically comes down to “money can’t buy happiness.”

“I mean, that’s certainly part of it,” she responds, laughing. “I mean, you know, I can imagine the young graduates right now who are trying to find their first job are rolling their eyes, right, because it’s really rough at this moment, it’s really hard. Like, ‘Forget my happiness, are you gonna buy me a house?’”

So, yes, you may not end up with a new house right away. But there can be benefits to graduating during a recession. For many people, it’s a forced pause. One that could lead to more introspection, and even an unexpected career path.

“There’s a lot of time to reflect versus just jumping on the next train, because there aren’t a lot of trains,” Emily suggests. “And so you can do more of kind of the introspection of, ‘Wow, what do I really want to do like, you know, what path do I want to take?’”

Another piece of Emily’s research shows that during economic downturns, people tend to become more interdependent. They tend to pull together. We see it happening now, and it’s something Elizabeth experienced in 2009, too.

“Like, one of the things that calmed me down and helped to assuage you know, the anxiety was just being in pretty continual communication with the folks who I considered my mentors at the time,” Elizabeth explains.

Eventually, Elizabeth ended up getting a full-time job as an architecture professor. So now, in 2020, she’s experiencing the same thing from the other side. She has mentees of her own.

“We are really actively trying to find jobs, find positions for the people who don't have them right now,” she says. “We see ourselves as being much stronger collectively together, if we can help each other, if we can advocate for each other.”

These silver linings may not be very comforting to new graduates like Diana, who have lost their internships and jobs, are moving back home, and are having to put their plans and dreams on hold. But Diana thinks that maybe there’s something to be said for building resilience.

"<b>We see ourselves as being much stronger collectively together, if we can help each other, if we can advocate for each other.</b>"

“The more experience slash knowledge we have of hardships, I think, is valuable to maneuvering whatever challenges we find in the future,” she says. “So I wish we didn't have to be in this position, but at the same time, I think there are valuable lessons to learn and gain and grow out of this situation.”

“The most important piece of advice that I could give anyone is just to understand that everything is always changing,” Elizabeth adds. “And I’m sure it's tense, with the visa conversations in mind, but I would just say keep leveling up, keep going, get ready for the change, because it's already happening no matter what.”

The recession, the pandemic, and U.S. immigration policy are all things that can feel out of our control. But we don’t have to face these challenges alone. We can all be a resource for each other, as we learn how to adapt, and ultimately, move forward.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story contained an error that has been corrected. It incorrectly identified Elizabeth Cohn-Martin as a full-time professor. She is adjunct faculty at Parsons (The New School) in NYC and part-time faculty at the AAU in San Francisco.


Christopher was a fellow in the KALW’s Audio Academy class of 2020. He previously interned at NPR. Among other topics, he is interested in reporting on issues of chronic illness, disability, and mental health. Christopher’s background is in film production and social impact strategy. He’s worked with major nonprofits and corporations on developing campaigns that advance social issues.
Ozzy Llinas Goodman is a freelance writer and journalist based in Berkeley. Their reporting interests include the uses and policing of public space, underground communities and solidarity economies, and other topics related to human movement, urban space, and civil rights.