Why Graduating During a Recession Proved to Be a Gift

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By Samantha Facciolo

When the Great Recession hit in 2007, I was a newly minted college graduate, ready to take the professional world by storm. I had purchased the requisite business suit and heels, I had perfected my resume, and I was prepared to log long hours for the sake of a fabulous career. The only problem was the world wasn’t ready for me. From late 2007 through 2009, the United States economy tumbled, and pretty soon Americans were dealing with unemployment rates higher than anything seen since the 1980s. What did this mean for me, a young, inexperienced worker looking for a job? It meant trading in my heels and high hopes for whatever work I could find. It meant a lot of disappointment and frustration, and in the end, it meant finding the courage needed to chase after latent dreams.

Like many millennials, I had been fed the same line from an early age – graduate from college, get a good job and build a steady career. I had my diploma, but where was that budding career? My shiny new car? My tastefully decorated apartment? Little did I know, millions of recent graduates like me were experiencing the same disconnect between their dreams and their reality.

For our parents’ generation and for their parents before them, graduating from college and landing a company job was a relatively safe way to gain access to a steady paycheck, benefits and paid time off. But that was not what the market was offering. At its height, the rate of unemployment in the United States outranked that of countries such as Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The fabled land of opportunity was being squeezed from all angles, and millennials faced particular challenges. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, of all workers born in 1980-1981, only 73 percent of women and 88 percent of men held jobs. Many millennials leaving school during the recession couldn’t find jobs in desired fields, and instead watched as that elusive linear career path failed so many of the very people who’d recommended it. Sure, some of my friends’ parents are now looking to retire from the very organization that hired them in their early 20s, but it seemed like just as many lost their jobs as a result of the recession.

The news hasn’t gotten much better since the official end of the recession in late 2009. According to another BLS study, in 2012, 36 percent of millennials were living with their parents and only 63 percent of millennials held jobs. According to an article by Meghan Foley on The CheatSheet, a full 48 percent of the unemployed are millennials, even though our generation is the largest in the labor force. “The fact that millennials entered the job market at the worst time in modern history, not to mention the fact that employment opportunities continue to be below pre-recession levels, mean the financial crisis has left an indelible mark,” Foley writes.

Where did this leave me? Spinning down unemployment creek without a paddle.

For months, I spent my days writing cover letters, sending out resumes and scouring print and online employment ads. I went on informational interviews with contacts ranging from nonprofit directors to pharmaceutical reps to bank recruiters. And then, as time went by and the recession began to spread its tentacles further into our checkbooks and HR departments, I began to formulate plan B. And plan B, simply, was to find work anywhere. I applied to be an overnight manager at a bagel shop, a court interpreter, an after-school program supervisor. I tended bar, waitressed and substitute taught. I cobbled together enough part-time jobs to be working 60 hours a week, but I was barely scraping by. There were days when I would work at a barn all day on Sunday, drive an hour to a catering job Sunday night, stay past midnight shaking hors d’oeuvres out of crumpled cocktail napkins, and then make it to school by 8 the next morning for another 12-hour day of teaching. I was changing diapers, shoveling manure and pouring beers, all the while keeping my ear open for any opportunity that seemed more stable and long term. Eventually, I landed in a Montessori school, first in the development office and then in a classroom, and for the next several years, I taught full time.

I loved the children and families I worked with, but beneath it all, I had a secret wish, and that was to be a writer. Every fall, as I prepared my classroom for the students’ return, I dreamed that I was the one returning to school instead. Eventually, I applied and was accepted to graduate school, and then I had a decision to make. Could I take the leap of faith necessary to leave my job (Regular pay checks! Health insurance!) and commit to being a full-time student again? My parents advised against it for all the obvious reasons. After being underemployed (a term I find much more dignified and telling than “jobless” or “unemployed”) during the recession and struggling to find full-time work, why would I give that up? The answer was that I was ready to pursue a long-held dream.

Skip ahead two years, and I’m in the middle of a fast-paced graduate program trying to balance work and school. There are days where I come home at 11 p.m. and am at work at 7:30 the next morning, but the difference between today and 2007 is that now I’m in class until 10 p.m. debating literature and elements of craft with my classmates, and work might be teaching or freelancing or coaching special needs children. I have so many skills that the recession forced me to learn, not least of which is the ability to couple together work that pays the bills while feeding my spirit. During the lean, anxious years of the recession, I felt like all I was doing was running from place to place, trying to keep my head above water. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the skills I was gaining would propel me forward. There were practical skills – how to successfully operate a classroom, submit fundraising proposals and conduct myself in an interview. I completed a grant writing certification class, learned to use design software and negotiated contracts. But just as important were the intangible skills – how to ask for help when I needed it, how to say no when my plate was full and how to assess risk and reward.

Risk and reward might sound more like business-ese than self-help, but it means that I’m much more comfortable going after something I want, even if it’s not a sure thing. In that sentiment, I’m not alone. Adam Poswolsky, who quit his job and moved across the country in search of fulfilling work, wound up writing the best-selling book “The Quarter-Life Breakthrough.” In an interview for Passion Stories, he says of uncertainty: “The big thing is accepting fear. I am scared about the money, but that makes me work harder, that makes me figure out alternative ways to make income.”

In many ways, Rebecca Simeone, proprietor of Rebecca Simeone Designs, a graphic design and photography firm, owes her success to that very uncertainty. After being laid off several years ago, she made the bold decision to launch her own business rather than jump back into the corporate world. “It was an instinctual decision based on the job market and what felt right for me at the time,” she said. “People kept asking me when I was going to go out on my own, and the timing felt right. I didn’t have a full-time job to hold me back from pursuing my own business.” Now eight years later, she credits her business for providing her with a sense of purpose, a sense of self, and the knowledge that at the end of the day, the decisions she makes are her own.

Today, I’m a full-time graduate student and a freelance journalist. I’m also a part-time teacher/tutor/coach/horseback-riding instructor, but I’m happier with my work than I could have imagined. When I was a new graduate just begging for someone –anyone- to hire me, I had no idea that a few years down the road, I would voluntarily walk away from the very thing I was desperate to have. At some point, I had to look at the unpredictability inherent in leaving a full-time job and say, “OK, I’ve been here before. I can do this.” Looking ahead to the years when I finish school and am taking my first steps as a professional writer, I know I’ll have more uncertainty and risk to stare down. The difference is, this time I’ll have experience on my side. I’ve worked the long hours, I’ve cobbled the odd jobs together and I’ve been at the base of the mountain looking up. Somehow, among serving platters of tuna tartare, hauling bales of hay and stirring cocktails, I learned to rely on myself. And in the end, that’s what I gained from the recession.


Samantha Facciolo is pursuing an M.F.A. in fiction at Emerson College. She teaches in the college’s high school outreach program, emersonWRITES, and is an editorial assistant at Redivider. She has traveled and worked in parts of South America, Europe and the Middle East and loves experiencing different cultures and areas of the world. Follow her @seesamwrite.

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Photo of “take the risk” by Shutterstock/Constantin Stanciu

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