In the summer of 2009, after graduating from college, I sat in the audience at Town Hall at the only wake I have ever attended for a newspaper. The deceased was the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and as I sat there in my summer dress listening to public mourning for a newsroom, the outsized loss I felt was bigger than the fate of any particular outlet. With print media jobs virtually nonexistent in the financial crisis I had graduated into, I was grieving the future I’d imagined for myself.
For the class of 2020, graduating into the coronavirus pandemic will mean reckoning with that kind of grief. Seattle Times economics columnist Jon Talton says the degree to which a recession affects graduates’ career trajectories depends on their skills and field of study, but in general, “graduates that enter the job market during a recession start with lower pay and it takes much longer for them to catch up — if they ever do — with those who came in during an up-cycle.”
This isn’t good news. But for millennials, it’s familiar. Because in the years following the 2008 financial crisis now known as the Great Recession, we inherited a collapsing economy with rules and reliable career paths that had been irrevocably altered, forcing us to innovate and create our own opportunities, to take any job instead of waiting for the perfect one, to live on low wages while paying off student loans, and to develop a desperate financial savvy that many of us would’ve gladly swapped for dental insurance and a 401(k).
As with all character-building experiences, living and working through a recession was an education in itself. Here’s how Seattle-area millennials made it through. May their hard lessons in resilience be a guide for this next generation.
Take whatever job is offered
I wanted to be a journalist. Stacy Sage, who grew up in Kent and graduated from Western Washington University in 2010, knew from about fourth grade on that she wanted to be a teacher. She fell in love with Spanish in high school, and, having transferred to WWU from Green River College, wanted to teach it at the community college level.
“I really loved the environment of community college — being among first-generation college students and folks who had entered the workforce and then were now coming back 10 years later and getting their degrees, and folks like myself who were too low-income to afford to go to university right off the bat,” Sage said.
A Spanish major and linguistics minor, Sage was on the track toward her dream until graduation, when she tried to find a job to pay off her student loans before going back to school for her master’s.
She recalls late nights when she stayed up till 4 a.m., firing off countless emails to apply for entry-level positions that paid minimum wage, but that somehow still required two to three years of experience.
“I remember just being ghosted, I would apply to 10 or 15 jobs and I wouldn’t hear back about any of them. Just nothing,” Sage said.
Sage and her partner ended up volunteering at the Kent Food Bank, then moved to Oregon for graduate school.
Eliza Parsons now lives in Seattle but graduated from Smith College in 2008 (disclosure: I also went to Smith; we didn’t know each other) with a degree in education and child study. She also wanted to work in education.
Parsons was offered opportunities in the field, but had decided to wait for a better fit. One day in late August 2008, Parsons recalled, “My roommate came home and said, ‘If you have any money in the stock market, get it out right now.’
“And then all of a sudden, we heard what had happened. And at that point, I still didn’t have a job.”
Parsons got a job at Whole Foods as a bagger. “I was just happy to have a job, and I have treated having a job ever since as a luxury,” she said.
“When people are like, ‘Oh, millennials complain so much, blah, blah, blah,’ I’m like, there’s got to be some truth to that stereotype … but I feel like for maybe a small subset of us, we’re just so grateful that we would never complain,” she said.
What if you can’t find a job?
Some responded to financial precarity by heading to graduate school. When Megan Jeffrey graduated from California Polytechnic State University in 2009 with a journalism degree and saw no newspapers hiring, she rethought her plan and pursued a graduate degree in communications instead.
“That ended up being the best decision I ever made,” Jeffrey said. “Through my graduate program, I moved up to Washington and was actually able to build a local network. I still wasn’t able to find a job right away because the economy was still very difficult, but at least I had built up connections.”
Andres Arjona, who graduated from the University of Washington in 2011 after studying communication and comparative religion, opted for the Peace Corps.
“By the end of my junior year, I was like, there’s no chance that I’m going to be able to find a job when I graduate next year,” he said.
After the Peace Corps, Arjona worked at a stock-footage startup. He wishes he had understood earlier that another area of undergraduate study, such as technology, might have been a more profitable route.
“The university always loves to market their liberal arts degrees, like, ‘We need those people out there in the workforce, they’re the thinkers,’” he said. “But I don’t know, when you’re [there] you’re like, ‘Are you serious? I don’t know. This isn’t materializing quick enough for me. I have loans.’”
Traditional routes for finding jobs, like networking and job fairs, didn’t help, said Tony Trepanier, an economics major who had interned at the Washington State Department of Transportation’s budget department before graduating from the University of Victoria in 2008.
“I stayed to do the summer quarter, and then watched the world burn while I was getting ready to graduate,” he recalled.
Finding little work in his field, Trepanier took a part-time job in construction. He eventually moved back in with his parents in Olympia.
Living with the folks
Kimberly Latham, who graduated in the winter of 2009 from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, with a politics degree, also moved back home, where she combined an unpaid internship at the Seattle International Film Festival with paid work at Victoria’s Secret and Wing Dome.
Eventually, through a temp agency, Latham found a full-time office job after two and a half years. “Then it was another two years before they could even make the business case to turn that contract into a permanent position,” she said.
Moving back into her family’s home wasn’t all bad. “A lot of times people graduated and left home and they didn’t really move back in,” Latham said. “Even in Asian culture, that might happen once you’re married with children and your parents are at a point where they’ve aged. It was interesting to get to know my parents as adults and not just my parents.”
Sage, the WWU grad, moved back in with her parents, too, but found it challenging to step back from the independent life she’d had in college. She and her then-boyfriend delayed plans to get married because of concerns over maintaining insurance coverage to manage his chronic illness.
“If we had gotten married in 2010, we would have had to figure out our own insurance because he would have gotten kicked off his parents’ insurance,” she said. “But because of the Affordable Care Act, he could stay on his parents’ insurance until 26, and so we actually didn’t get married until after we finished graduate school when we turned 26.”
They’d hoped to start a family, too, but waited until they’d saved enough money to cover hospital expenses and the baby’s first year.
“Knowing that we had lived through this period of extreme instability, where we were having to depend on our parents even as adults, we didn’t want to go back to that,” she said.
But there is a silver lining
Five years after that sad night at Town Hall, I was hired as a section editor at an alternative weekly. By then, I’d worked as a barista, taught English comp, written emails for a nonprofit, given English lessons to French elementary schoolers, and written articles for little or no money. But with luck and hard work, I was back on the career path I’d left behind at 22.
My trajectory isn’t unusual. As much as you hear about millennial entitlement and burnout, in talking to actual millennials more than a decade after we graduated into a recession, I heard something different. My peers told stories of resilience and ingenuity and deep inner reserves in the face of bad odds.
Many recession-era graduates ultimately ended up where they’d hoped; it just took longer, and it wasn’t without a cost.
Latham, the politics major, went back to graduate school in 2013, and is now a project manager for a public policy firm. “I’ve stayed the policy route by sheer will,” she said.
After working for nonprofits and an interior design company, Jeffrey now uses her master’s degree in UW’s department of communication.
“I found my way back home, if you want to say that, because your past kind of diverges, and then you somehow end up in a circle sometimes,” she said.
Trepanier now works in finance at Seattle-based law firm Perkins Coie, although he estimates it took him about six years to achieve job security.
Parsons, the Smith graduate, works in admissions at an independent school. “I don’t think that my career path would have taken me to Seattle had there not been a financial crisis,” she said. “I don’t know what my life would have looked like.”
And after postponing starting a family, Sage and her husband own their home and are now the parents of a 2-year-old. Part of their financial burden was lifted when they received an inheritance after Sage’s father-in-law died. It allowed them to pay off their student loans.
Still, there are no guarantees of success, and millennials know this better than anyone.
“I was let go from an unpaid internship out of college, so that kind of lives with you the rest of your life,” Latham said. “You can start to think, ‘Well, if that can happen, then it can happen anytime,’ and I think we’re seeing that now.”
Sage said experiencing job insecurity early in her career was formative. “I’ve seen some former colleagues quit out of frustration without having anything lined up afterward, and that just absolutely is inconceivable to me that you would quit a job, no matter how awful it was, without having something lined up to go to,” she said.
In June, Arjona will complete a master’s degree in urban planning. “So I’m entering the recession again … I’m not looking forward to it,” he said. If all else fails, he and his wife and baby can live on his wife’s income temporarily, he hopes. “That’s like Plan Z,” he said.
And after working hard to fulfill her dream of teaching, Sage found herself back at square one, too, when her contract as a community college Spanish teacher was not renewed. “It’s a little bit sad,” she said. “I fell out of love with teaching.”
So she found a job as an administrative assistant at a nonprofit that fit well with her Spanish skills. Sage was subsequently promoted and is now a full-time grant writer.
She has done what millennials are used to doing: changed her plan and found a way to keep going.
“I think that’s something that really distinguishes millennials and, to a certain extent, Gen Z as well,” Sage said. “We have this really enormous capability to learn, and to adapt, and to figure it out. And I think that we can succeed at whatever we are put to.”