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What I learned from living through the 2008 Great Recession as a Millennial

Up until recently, we didn’t really talk a lot about the 2008-2009 economic crisis much, at least not on a personal level. But for me, it was an important part of my history, my adulthood. And now, with whatever is happening in this economy, it seems we’re on familiar footing. Here’s an anecdotal review of that period of my life, and the affects it’s had on my well-being and mindset.

I know a lot of people have trouble realizing who a millennial is, but generally the term applies to those of us born between the early 1980s and late 1990s, so about 1980—1999. That puts me on the higher end of the age bracket, but still a millennial.

At the time of the 2008-2009 recession, I was just a few years out of college. My first job was as a full-time contract position in graphic design, and after about a year, I was hired into the company with a true salaried position. Within another year, the recession started to hit.

I have a lot of memories from that time. It was a weird point in my life; I was still learning how to be myself, how to do the whole adulting thing. But then the world also seemed to be falling apart around me. I was trying to grow up, while I watched the world fall down.

I remember the tax relief that George W. Bush signed into law. There was a $600 stimulus check I received. I remember being told it was meant to encourage encourage me to spend my money on something, a way to jumpstart the economy I guess. I don’t know what I did with it, but I probably used it to buy an iPod or a bunch of albums.

There were months of news and stress. I remember friends unemployed for months. I remember friends who moved back in with their families to save on rent. I remember friends who went on food stamps. None of us really knew what to do, and we barely knew how to be adults.

It wasn’t an easy time for a lot of us.

Coming of age during a recession changes you.

The 2008-2009 economic crisis was nothing like the ones I remember reading about in my high school history textbooks. It hit my life back then in a lot of ways. I was lucky to get through it.

There’s no denying the recession had a profound impact on my life and those of my peers. The shock of of the recession just as I was coming into adulthood changed my perspective on so much. It taught me to not trust the economy, to not rely on corporations to bail out the people, to be skeptical of the government.

Living through the recession taught me to push harder for myself and to create the life I wanted on my own terms—as much as I could. After the recession, so many of us struggled and had to make the lives we could from what we had. We created, we freelanced, we started our own businesses.

We’re creators and innovators. As the world has changed and our companies and governments provide less and less, we’ve had to find our own way.

And all of that has become too apparent during whatever economic crisis is happening today. I learned a lot during that recession, and the subsequent, challenging years. And I think they’re things that could help today.

5 Things I Learned as a Millennial During the Great Recession

I don’t know if any of these were positives or negatives, but there’s no denying the effect the 2008-2009 recession has had on my life and on my mindset. Here are some of the things I learned from living through that recession.

We grow up fast

Shortly after graduating from college, there were lots of lessons to be learned. Suddenly, with a relatively decent income (pre-recession), I found myself dealing with adult things like I’d never had to do before. I had to navigate healthcare on my own for the first time, learn how to better manage my money for that “traditional” future, open my first IRA account, and start figuring out how to invest in the future, and do that 9-to-5 work grind as young adult.

The economy, though, had a different plan for me. I was young, paying off my debts, and suddenly the world came at me fast. So I had to grow up fast. I had to learn how to manage my money, how to prioritize my own life goals.

It was a tough learning curve in a crisis, but by the end of it, I came out okay and with a whole lot of knowledge on how to ~ simply ~ survive.

Save money whenever you can

Living through a recession that effectively defines your young adult life leaves you with a lot of life experience—most of it unwanted. But it was my personal experience of trying to save for an uncertain future while keeping a job and building a safety net that taught me how to save money.

When my friends started losing their jobs, we started living more cheaply. We shopped for thrift items. We planned fashion exchanges. We even learned to just give away what we didn’t need, and ask for things for free when we needed to. We’d share Netflix accounts, or buy each other groceries when we needed to.

That ability to empathize with others, and to stay thrifty, helped me save money as much as I could. I’d do everything I could to avoid overdraft fees on my checking account. I learned how to use credit cards safely and responsibly, and to track which accounts had the lowest interest and best benefits so I could plan my monthly budget accordingly.

Those financial skills have stuck with me to this day. I pay a lot of attention to where and how I’m spending my money, and, with more financial security today than back then, I’ve mostly been able to keep afloat comfortably.

Build your own future

When I started to realize the effects the economy was having on my current job, my career, my industry, and my ability to make money, I learned a hard lesson. I knew my future would only be as good as it could be if I took control and made the steps to build my own future.

That recession taught me that you have to make your own life. You can’t rely on anyone else—no corporation, no government.

I was very lucky during the recession because I was never laid-off, though the economy did, in a way, effectively stall my career in graphic design. Frozen wages and a tough economy made it difficult to prepare for a future career. At the time, my inspiration for “work” was stalled, and with the last bit of my savings, I took my gap year—15 months traveling around the world on a tight budget.

That experience of travel changed my perspectives even more. But it was the effects of the recession that planted the seed to travel in the first place. I didn’t trust my job to protect me or to help me grow. And I certainly didn’t trust my government to support whatever was coming. So I took my money and made my own way.

Don’t trust corporations to protect you

When I was working a full-time job during the Great Recession, I read a lot of the news. I was also pretty heavily invested and interested in the corporate politics at my company. I was young and eager and wanted to make it big, so I was constantly learning what I could to get ahead and get involved.

But then something funny happened. I watched a lot of my friends in other industries lose their jobs. With no income, and few job prospects, and unable to pay rent, many moved back home to live with family. Meanwhile, my company at the time was posting profit after profit. Sure, the industry we were working in was dying, but the company was still profitable.

And then: they started freezing wages and laying off thousands of employees. “Cost-saving measures” was the phrase I heard over and over. Despite record-breaking profits, the company was going to do what it could to protect itself. Not my friends and co-workers who needed protection the most

It was a tough enlightenment. And made me realize that American dream we’d all been taught was pretty much a lie. You can work hard and pull yourself up by the bootstraps, but the power is still in the hands of corporations. That’s what eventually led me to become my own boss.

Don’t trust the government

Back when we realized we were about to live through a recession, I remember a lot of anger. And a lot of confusion. I was still young and still trying to come to terms with life as an adult, but I remember not having a lot of confidence in my government.

We didn’t know what the future was going to be, and I just didn’t trust my government to rescue me, or my industry. The world was quickly changing and while I remember receiving a bit of tax relief, the world still changed. Many of us lost our jobs, our futures. And the government didn’t prepare us for any of the changes that have since come.

Today, as I watch the news (while trying to stay sane), I’m afraid. Because here we are again, in a recession, but the government does not seem to recognize the world we’re living in today. Over 30% of the American workforce today is estimated to be self-employed, or working essentially full-time in the “gig” economy.

That’s 30% of the workforce. We are often not protected with unemployment insurance, sick time, paid leave—there are fewer and fewer worker rights. And when this recession fully hits, we’re not going to be protected. And I don’t trust my government, yet again, to help.

Sure, it looks like we might get a check (or hopefully a few), and some tax relief. But that’s enough. The way we live and work today is so different than what our old, outdated government thinks and prepares for.

I don’t know what this upcoming recession will bring, if anything. I struggled through my first recession but came out of it pretty strong.

Even if I’m dealing with the anxiety of all of this simultaneously, I am confident we’ll get through it. It’s going to be scary for a while. And my future is yet again uncertain.

To be honest, I’m just tired of this regular cycle of struggle. Our economy and our government is broken and seemingly stuck on repeat. And until it changes dramatically, this is just what life is going to be. Frankly: that’s not fair. And don’t tell me life isn’t fair. We should always be striving to improve life for ourselves, our communities, our society.

Let’s see what we can all learn from this recession. A bit of humanity and respect for the workers, hopefully.

Note: Some of this post was originally published in a blog from 2017, titled “The Real Reason I’m Self-Employed.”