Great Recession Grads: "Money Skews Your Decisions"

Illustration by Abbie Winters.
As the 2018 graduates toss their mortar boards into the air, they should be celebrating not just their new diplomas but the fact they’re graduating into the best economic situation the U.S. has seen in a decade. The starting salary for Class of 2018 is expected to be over $50,000.
That’s a stark difference to the reality that faced the Class of 2008, who 10 years ago graduated on the eve of the Great Recession. That spring, the unemployment rate was on the rise, and by 2012, only two-thirds of 2008 grads were employed full-time. While the U.S. economy has slowly recovered over the past decade, many believe that the Class of 2008 will suffer permanent career setbacks which will affect their earnings for years to come.
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Until the end of the month, in our limited series Great Recession Grads, we'll be catching up with women from the class of 2008 to learn about the professional and financial challenges they’ve faced over the last 10 years. As many of them learned, your career trajectory can be as much a product of forces beyond your control as it is your own choices. Here's what they have to say.
Name: Sandy
Age: 30
Location: Chicago
College Major: Political Science
Occupation: Entrepreneur
Industry: Photography
What was your first job out of graduation? How long did it take you to get that job?
"I graduated early in December 2008 from the University of Minnesota. It was brutal. I was the first in my family to go to college in the United States, and I was determined not to get bogged down by student debt. I was one of those people that went to career events as a freshman. The most helpful thing about the relationships I developed with recruiters was that they were very forthright about the lack of open positions.
"It was really clear that the traditional jobs I had been angling for weren't hiring. I ended up getting a community service nonprofit job with City Year, an AmeriCorps organization, a few weeks after graduation. (I had randomly met the recruiter for that job in line at the grocery store.) I interviewed and got hired within a few weeks; it was a really lucky break during a really rough time."
Was that the job/industry you wanted to work in?
"Part of me always wanted to do something like the Peace Corps after college but I thought that would be irresponsible. During my last year of college, I predominantly applied for business consulting roles. Once it became clear that wouldn't work, I started to focus on things I really wanted to do even if they didn't seem financially beneficial. City Year paid very little but it allowed me to freeze my student debt payments."
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Money skews your decisions.

In your view, did the Great Recession affect your career trajectory?
"Definitely. First, it was incredibly difficult to find a job during the recession, which was frustrating and resulted in a lot of self-confidence woes. Second, the pay seemed significantly lower when I started out compared to that of my friends who graduated in 2006 and 2007. I would say the first six years out of college were a slog. After that, I became established enough as an artist and photographer to sustain my life."
How do you feel about the economy now?
"I worry about the stability of the growth that we've all experienced over the last few years. Additionally, growing income inequality and rising education costs unsettle me."
Reflecting on your career path, do you think the last 10 years of your career would have gone differently had you not graduated right before the recession?
"Probably, though who knows how things would have turned out if I had been able to get a typical job right out of college. When I graduated, I was bitter and upset about the state of things. Looking back now, I'm deeply grateful for how things turned out. With the traditional path closed off, I ended up doing things I truly wanted to instead of chasing money.
"I currently run my own photography business. Had I gotten a job at a consulting company, I'm not sure I would have ever been bold enough to make the leaps that I've had to make on my own. Plus, I managed to pay off my student debt through my creative work, which is not something I would have ever dreamed of as a possibility. Perhaps I got lucky. I know a lot of my friends are just as hard-working, talented and savvy but are still working to pay off their student debt."
What advice do you have for the Class of 2018, which is graduating into the best U.S. economy in 10 years?
"Success is a strange combination of luck and work. I hope that the class of 2018 is able to appreciate their lucky timing. While the Great Recession was brutal, it was also very freeing. Money skews your decisions. Don't pretend that money doesn't matter, but if there's a career or job that excites you, even if it's not the most lucrative, give yourself a year or two to make a go of it. Things have a funny way of working themselves out.
"Lastly, build a support network of friends and work collaborators! My absolute best projects have come in response to photography and creative work that I've shared on my website and social media accounts. When I was starting out, that wasn't quite enough to sustain me, but friends and professional acquaintances referred me for projects they were too busy for or had me assist on bigger projects. Making it through my first year as a photographer wouldn't have been possible without a network."
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