Read: Generation C has nowhere to turn
He knew he had picked a tough industry to break into, but still, the past year has been demoralizing. “I didn’t figure on jobs suddenly not existing anymore,” Conrad told me. “I don’t know what to do about it. I feel somewhat lost.”
For Morgan Haney, 23, not even a degree in a still-thriving field was enough to land a full-time job. She graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2020 with a double major in integrated strategic communications and merchandising apparel and textiles. When her campus closed last March, she moved home with her family in Atlanta. After a few months of job searching with no luck, she found a sales-associate position at a boutique fitness studio that she never expected to love. She’s no longer just slogging through the job for some cash, though—she genuinely enjoys it.
Haney’s willingness to deviate from her plan aligns with the idea that people who graduate during a recession might learn to be flexible, says Hannes Schwandt, an assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University. He told me that when he looked at how Great Recession graduates are faring now, he saw that they had a slightly lower unemployment rate than their peers who did not graduate into a recession. In Schwandt’s opinion, their adaptability set them up to adjust to tumultuous circumstances later on, like Haney did.
After my plan to spend last year teaching English to elementary-school kids in France didn’t work out, I had to adjust too. I’m working at a warehouse-turned-brunch spot in my town, freelancing for a digital magazine, and reading on my back porch while people who’ve known me since I was 7 pass by on their daily quarantine sanity walk. I oscillate between being fine with where I’m at and being terrified that my life is over before it even started. Will I carry this uncertainty with me throughout my career? When May 29 rolls around and I’ve been out of college and without a full-time job for a year, will I be marked for life as someone who tripped at the starting line and now paces behind everybody else?
Read: What did college leaders think was going to happen?
Jesse Rothstein, a public-policy and economics professor at UC Berkeley, has also studied the effects of graduating during a recession. He told me that those effects can stick with people even after the economy improves—youth unemployment can have a “scarring effect.” This damage can hinder educational attainment, family formation, and economic mobility not just for the individual but for future generations of their family.
As an example, if you want to have a good job six years out of college, you need to get that first job that sets you up to climb the ladder of success. If you have a low-paying job or no job right out of college, you’re starting on a lower rung of the ladder than someone who got a good job right after graduating. And they’re going to get to the higher rungs of the ladder, such as promotions and raises, before you. Getting that first job is especially difficult when there are fewer opportunities and more people vying for the same spots.