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The sky is falling! The sky is falling!!!.

December 8, 2008

Or: How to keep your head on your shoulders during a recession
by TasDil

It may have come to your attention that the economy is not performing quite as well as it used to.  Terms such as “slowdown,” “recession” and “biggest disaster since the Great Depression” are being bandied about with discomforting frequency.  It is a scary time.

Since this blogzine is primarily aimed at people who have recently entered the workforce, I realize that most people reading it could probably benefit from a little perspective from someone who lost a job in a prior recession.  I’m hoping to include a few items that I wish someone had told me when the last recession got underway.  With everyone so willing to give an opinion on how bad things are gonna be, what should you expect?  Well, that depends, you see…

Number 1: Recessions are personal – When I graduated from college in 2000 the world was my oyster.  I had an in-demand position in an economy that seemed to be slowing down a little but was certain to rebound.  Opportunities had been growing for a whole decade, and people were switching jobs for greater pay as often as twice a year.

Things were very different a little over a year later when I was laid off.  For the first time in my life I felt directionless, lost, unappreciated.  Still, I was certain that things would turn around in a few weeks.  But as months went by and I still couldn’t get a job, I really started to feel demoralized.

Of all the difficulties I had to face during that time, one of the most difficult issues to deal with was the apparent nonchalance with which most members of society seemed to be handling the worrisome state of affairs.  The recession was constantly described as being “mild and shallow,” and was believed to be much better than the 1991-1992 recession that cost the first George Bush his presidency.  Well let me tell you, when you’re waking up each day to try and mine your contacts/websites/newspapers, when you go on interview after interview and don’t even receive a return call to tell you that the position has been taken, or worse, the caller tells you the position was cancelled, “mild and shallow” are not the words you would use to describe the economic slowdown.

And therein lies my point: your experience in this recession will be very personal.  If you’re unlucky enough to lose your job, you may take some temporary solace in knowing you’re not alone, but it won’t be very comforting.  You’ll still have to face a long haul of constant job-searching, with many rejections and little encouragement.  If, on the other hand, you manage to keep your job, things won’t seem to be all that bad.  From your point of view, the recession may very well seem “mild and shallow,” even if it truly is “The Great Depression” Part Deux.

As a personal example, I’ve since decided to change careers and am currently a medical student.  Having no assets and in a field that is likely to remain in demand regardless of the economy, a recession likely will not affect me too much.  If prices truly begin to deflate, then my massive debt may become more of a burden, but I know the effect will be temporary and I will recover.  Which brings me to point number 2:

Number 2: Recessions always end – Wikipedia lists 17 US recessions since 1797.  All but 2 lasted less than 10 years, with the majority lasting 3 years or less.  One of the double-digit-length recessions was, of course, the Great Depression of 1929-1939.  Since then, no recession has lasted more than 2 years.

Why am I bringing this up?  Surviving your first recession can be incredibly nerve-wracking.  Things just seem to keep getting worse, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. The difficulty arises since, having never been through a recession, you may lack the perspective you need to reassure yourself that things will get better.  Once you’ve been through a recession your attitudes towards them will change.  You’ll be able to rely on prior experience to keep yourself calm and aware that this is a temporary matter and will, eventually, pass.

Rest assured, every recession is different, and every recession there are people who say that it’s the worse they’ve ever seen.  It may very well be the case since, as was said previously, recessions are personal.  But they do end, and things do get better.

So what should you do in the meantime?  What if you find yourself unemployed and trying to get back on the bandwagon?  That would be point number 3:

Number 3: When offered help, take it. – As Americans, we’re very proud of our ability to “make our own way” in life.  We’re taught to go out into the world and work hard to earn our happiness.  We are weary of support of any type, particularly when it seems to come from our government.

Living off unemployment benefits, going to the local food pantry to get some bread, trying to obtain help to pay for medical insurance: these are not tasks it ever occurred to me I would have to perform.  I was hesitant to do so, until a friend pointed out that most of these systems are in place precisely for when things take an unexpected turn in life.

Far from being handouts, unemployment benefits are funded by the very companies that employ personnel during more upbeat economic times.  They are considered part of the cost of business, just another part of the benefits package that you sign up for.  In essence, you are hired at a lower wage than you would be paid just in case the unthinkable happens and you lose your job.  So it’s not really being dependent on the system as much as getting what had been put away for you for this very occasion.

Similarly, when you actually go to a food pantry you find that the food available there is usually food that was discarded by large supermarkets for being to close to the expiration date (though not officially expired).  They are all name brands, some of it food that you would normally consider depriving yourself of due to its cost.

So don’t berate yourself for using the various sources of assistance available.  Look upon it as a different facet of life that results from everyone in our country being members of a fascinating, challenging, and sometimes unpredictable worldwide economy.

Finally, recessions are periods of time when the economy slows down: it decides things are moving forward too fast and needs to take a step back.  Why not let life imitate business and:

Number 4: Use your short term dilemma to start thinking about your long-term plan – Most of us enter the workforce on autopilot.  We start working where we feel our skills are best needed without giving much thought to what our long-term goals might be.  We put a lot of effort into our jobs and become as productive as we can be, oftentimes without considering where we are headed.

A recession is a real break from that routine.  It’s an opportunity to reexamine what you want to accomplish in your life, where you want to be in a few years and how you can truly contribute to society while leading a fulfilling life.  So, as the world slows down, maybe you can slow down a bit, too.  Try to refocus yourself, bring the bigger picture into clearer view.  After all, one of the greatest things about America is that you can always change your mind and take a different course.

I walked down that path a few years ago.  Spent a year examining my life, deciding what truly matters to me, what truly inspires me.  The changes I’ve made since then placed me on a path where I feel better aligned with what I feel my personal strengths are.  My life has more meaning, and I have become a better person to boot.

You will have to blaze your own path through this recession, reach your own conclusions about what it means to you and where you want to go from here.  Regardless of the outcome, always remember that you’re capable of conquering any difficulties you encounter.  Surround yourself with supportive friends and family who build you up, not tear you down.  Search within yourself and you will find that you have all the strength you need to not only survive, but shine even brighter than before.  After all, hard-fought victories taste sweeter.

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4 Comments
  1. Nuejam permalink
    December 8, 2008 11:58 pm

    This is when the anarcho-syndicalists who have taken the roundabout path in education shrug and point the yuppies to what they have already known.

    I wonder how Yuppies in SE Asia and China are faring in the economy? Are those working abroad as severely affected — does it on the currency of their income?

    Maybe now is the time to learn Chinese or Malay and seek a transfer to Hong Kong or Singapore. Or join your local credit union and pro-immigrant protests in solidarity because not everyone is fortunate enough to be eligible for welfare.

    Anyways, I’m sure the non-profit sector is still looking for applicants.

  2. December 11, 2008 4:27 pm

    Actually, the non-profit sector seems to be suffering as much as everybody else. I’ve heard that organizations that rely on donations are seeing a drop in charitable giving. I’ve applied to several jobs and internships with non-profit companies/organizations in the last six months and it’s every bit as difficult to get even an interview in that arena. I think it’s safe to say that just about everybody’s hurting right now, and with a limited number of positions and more people out of work the job market is at LEAST twice as competitive as usual, regardless of the sector in which you are looking.

    I do recommend checking out your local temp agencies to anybody scrambling to pay the bills. While there is a lot of competition for that, too, and it might not be the steadiest work, a paycheck is a paycheck, and many agencies offer at least some type of health coverage for employees (I think that’s worth a lot in itself). Temp agencies can also be a good opportunity to round out your skills and experience and get some good things to put on your resume for when some jobs do start opening up again. It can be a good stepping-stone. And again, it pays the bills.

  3. Nuejam permalink
    December 13, 2008 1:24 am

    Temp agencies, nice advice.

    I read up earlier this year on the Harlem Children’s Zone, and how they were initially funded by money from downtown firms… Naomi Klein wrote a lot about how corporate sponsorship is narrated as an inevitability for lots of NPOs, and I hope as you mention that when the corporations practice foulplay the NGOs, especially those that are really doing good things for the communities in which they reside, don’t suffer too extensively.

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