A Message to the Class of 2020 from a Member of the Class of 2008
Updated: Apr 20
Dear Class of 2020,
Like the rest of us, you are experiencing a wave of emotions that change on a daily, if not hourly, basis. However, you are also set to enter a new stage of your life without the ability to celebrate this milestone. You worked hard not just for that moment, but for the long stretch of adult life that lies beyond that moment. Many of you are staring into uncertainty. I am not a college senior and do not know what it is like to be you right now. But I feel a lot of compassion for what you may be experiencing and look to you to better understand what you're feeling and what you need from the rest of us.
I am a member of the college class of 2008, a class that you have undoubtedly heard so much about in recent weeks because of the parallels between the Great Recession and our current public health crisis-induced economic downturn. When the economy started to unravel weeks ago, I thought back to 2008 and for the first time realized how much had changed. Twelve years sounds like a long time; in some ways, it feels long. In others, it doesn't. I don't feel that life has changed all that much. But it has. I mention this because it is all too easy to give advice that does not take into consideration the unique challenges someone is facing now. No advice gleaned from a stranger on the internet will be 100% applicable to you. Take what is relevant, and cast the rest aside. This is not 2008; I am not you. Your road will look different from mine.
But I can empathize with your situation because 2008 disabused me of many myths and beliefs I held about what a college education was supposed to protect me against. I came from a low-income, single-parent, immigrant household. College was supposed to be my ticket. If I worked and studied hard, the story went, I would be able to avoid a life of poverty or what have you. They said that college was the "great equalizer". I did not anticipate the truths that 2008 uncovered: college is not a great equalizer; some have more privilege than others and will get ahead in the worst of times. You can be a college graduate and make terrible wages (wages that no one, regardless of their level of educational attainment, can and should live on). You can be a college graduate and end up unemployed and homeless. You can be a college graduate and struggle. It was a humbling lesson; I learn that I am not better nor more deserving than anyone else because of my credentials. And I also learned to be more discerning when pursuing educational opportunities beyond college. The reality was crushing and I felt like a failure. Unlike me at 22, perhaps you understand that you did not, and have not, failed. Perhaps you understand that this downturn is the result of systemic failures and individuals bear the brunt of the consequences.
With that in mind, I'll try my best to offer advice about what I learned as a person whose entire adulthood was shaped in the shadow of the 2008 recession. I write this with a set of graduates in mind, specifically those who are first-gen college students and/or students from low-income backgrounds who live in the United States. That said, other grads may find value in this post.
1. Your degree is not your destiny. I hope subsequent classes have unlearned this belief that so many of my peers had when we went to college. Your degree is not your destiny! Graduating with a degree in English or Philosophy does not preclude you from getting a job in many fields, nor will it peg you to a lifetime of low paying jobs. I transitioned to a career in tech four years after graduating with a liberal arts degree. Many people in tech did not come from a computer science background, and I'm sure you can find examples in other industries also.
2. Your first job out of college is also not your destiny. There will be many articles published that will show statistics about your lifetime earnings based on your degree or based on this downturn. But if your primary concern upon graduating is to pay your bills ASAP, there is absolutely no shame in having a first job (or series of jobs) that will allow you to meet your obligations. College friends who graduated in both 2008 and 2009 did what they had to; many of us worked as receptionists, in retail, going door-to-door as census takers, temping, working in food service, or working one-off gigs we found on Craigslist. In the years since, they have gone to graduate school and have found jobs as lawyers, urban planners, project managers, and educators. In short: if you're in a job right now because you need to pay the bills, there is no shame in that. Do what you have to do.
3. If your parents have health insurance, stay on their plan as long as possible. Health insurance until 26, as mandated by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), is something you all have that we did not in 2008. We were kicked off of our parents' insurance plans as soon as we graduated from college, and in 2008, there was no "marketplace" for insurance. When you joined a company, you had to wait a few months to get added to their insurance plan. I found dentists by searching for $50 dental cleanings on Groupon. The point is: stay on your parents' plans if they have one. Not having to worry about healthcare in addition to everything else that is going on.
4. Consider other education options before applying to grad school. Post-2008, a flurry of my peers entered graduate school in the hopes that they would ride out the worst of the recession and command higher paying jobs upon getting their Master's. I want to caution against this approach.
There are exactly two reasons to go to grad school:
You're in a field that requires an advanced degree (like teaching or some medical professions), or
You really want to go to grad school.
Graduate school is an additional expense and there are no guarantees that it will automatically lead to a better-paying opportunity in the future. Graduate programs are a cash cow for many universities and new programs pop up all the time; it isn't always easy to discern between a program that leads to positive outcomes and one that is predatory.
If you really want to go to grad school but are concerned about the expense, remember the option to return to school will still be available to you in the future. I know many Master's students who are in their mid-to-late twenties; in my case, I went back to school at 31 and graduated at 33. And the best part: today, many employers aren't necessarily swayed toward applicants with an advanced degree. There are many (and I mean many) educational options online for students who want to acquire new skills. You can:
Apply for a certificate program through a local college or university in a field that is of interest to you. Take one class in the program before committing. This will help you understand if the field is of interest or if you're ready for school right now. In 2015, I took two online classes through the University of California San Diego extension program which gave me the skills I needed to find a writing job in tech. It was thousands of dollars cheaper than a Master's program and the time commitment was just ten weeks.
If you prefer the self-teaching route, look at sites like Udemy, Udacity, Coursera, and edX. These sites offer courses in a variety of fields, many of them are free.
Finally, another reason to wait to go to grad school: some employers offer educational stipends, tuition reimbursement, or student loan forgiveness programs. Now, this might look different in the wake of the current recession. In the years following the 2008 recession, employers started offering these perks as a way of attracting and retaining talent. I was able to get most of my degree paid for through educational reimbursement programs, and also through a grant for working professionals from the American Association of University Women. I got my degree in a field that I was very interested in and is highly competitive (User Experience Design) and my degree has translated into better career opportunities. In summary: it pays to wait if you can!
5. Even if you don't have money of your own, learn as much as you can about personal finance. I did not know much about personal finance when I graduated and was scared and intimidated by money. I started reading a bunch of personal finance sites and blogs to learn as much as I could, starting with budgeting and things related to work (taxes, benefits, 401K plans, salary negotiation). The more I learned the less intimidating it became and the better prepared I was to manage my finances when my money situation improved. The key to navigating these sites—especially when they share personal finance stories—is that everyone's financial situation is different, and everything may not be applicable to you right now. But taking a look at your own financial situation and your own needs can help you assert some control over a part of your life (even if that is planning for what you want things to look like in the future). Check out sites like NerdWallet and Personal Capital to start.
6. Similarly, read about what careers look like in 2020 from career coaches and experts. If it offers you any solace, remember that careers and jobs look different now to so many other people—including those of us who have been in the workforce for a long time. Some businesses are pivoting to online-first offers, people are learning about entrepreneurship for the first time, and many are working remotely for the first time also. Read articles about "remote tips" and study what brick-and-mortar businesses are doing right now in the online space. It's too early to tell what will be a long-term trend and what will be only temporary, but if you study how professionals and businesses are acclimating to the current economic reality, you might be able to spot an opportunity. This is exactly how I came into tech: in 2012, coding bootcamps were starting to emerge, already building on a movement where self-taught programmers and technologists were entering the workforce. I learned to program with the assistance of a friend and through him, was able to secure my first job at a startup. I don't know what this opportunity will look like for you, but don't be afraid to use this time to study what people are doing and to spot what entry-level opportunities exist! (Read The Memo by Minda Harts. Currently, I'm a big fan of the career coach Latesha Byrd, who recently launched a monthly members club.)
7. Give yourself permission to feel how you feel, and look to therapy when you need it. Therapy is still unfortunately stigmatized in many communities (definitely mine), but I've come to think of therapy as "ME time". I get to clarify my thoughts and my emotions in an objective environment with someone who will listen; they are not promising to fix my problems and they don't purport to have all the answers. If there was one thing I wish I had access to in the years following my college graduation, it's a therapist. I went through so much in five years, some of them traumatic, and did not have the support I needed to get through. You can find affordable therapists via Open Path Collective, look for someone covered under your health insurance plan, or see if your university offers a Talkspace plan. (The best part is most therapists now offer virtual consultations!)
In summary, 2020 is not your entire story. For many years following the 2008 recession, my class was defined by the terrible economic situation that underscored our entering the workforce. Frankly, it can be depressing to read the existing literature about Millennials and what we have and don't have compared to older generations. The truth is a lot more complicated than that. Some people recovered more quickly than others. And there will be other events in the future that will shape our personal and professional lives in different ways. I do not know what the "future" holds for you, but I did not know what the "future" held for me in 2008, either. I did my best with the information I had at hand, and I kept going. Ask for help, tell people what you need, and take it a day at a time.
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