This September marked the 10-year anniversary of the collapse of the Lehman Brothers, otherwise known as “the financial crisis of 2008” or “recession,” for short. Like many recent college graduates at the time, I was hopeful and excited at the prospect of having a career. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew that with a business degree, I had plenty of choices.
Little did I know how wrong I was.
Ten years later, last week, I received an influx of articles in my inbox reminiscing about this recession. In a NYT opinion piece, an editor who, like me, came of age during the recession, expressed bitterness for the “big guys” who crushed her parents’ hope of achieving the comfortable middle-class life and her ambition towards a financially stable future.
Another piece, also by the New York Times, poses a slightly more optimistic view, chronicled several selected individuals who were interviewed in 2008 about their lives in relation to the crisis and their lives now, ten years later. Some of them got back up after being knocked down and prospered, while others continued to struggle, never finding the same level of work that they were accustomed to before the crash. Finally, the New Yorker said that evidence shows middle class incomes have not rebounded back to same level as it were prior to the recession.
Coincidentally, just last week I listened to a Hidden Brain podcast called “Looking Back” in which they talked about regret in conjunction with nostalgia.
The episode (which can be heard here) dove into the idea that is so fundamentally obvious and yet we tend to forget about sometimes—that we regret what we didn’t do versus what we did do. Much can be said about the mistakes that we make as humans when we choose to do certain things, and yet more can be said about what we choose NOT to do.
It’s not so much that I want to talk about a terrible period in my life, but rather, disclose it in a way that tells you that I’ve learned a thing or two.
From 2008 to 2010, I didn’t think anything was different or challenging from my post-college life (except for the fact that my husband and I owed the IRS more taxes than we had in the bank and therefore, we had to survive on a $30 per week grocery budget while we drove our used 8-year-old car as little as possible so that we can pay the bills AND the IRS back). I thought that was just the life that we were given, thus nothing out was of the ordinary. I didn’t pay attention to the news; thus, I didn’t realize the crash had such a fundamental effect on so many people.
Upon reflection, I realize that it was quite extraordinary that my husband and I managed it all. It’s extraordinary how we didn’t move back in with our parents, how we didn’t rely on charity (even though we could have), how we didn’t default on our loans, how we managed to come out of it alive and kicking.
After listening to the Hidden Brain episode, it brought me back to the early days of the crash and several years after that. After being laid off from a really nice job at a good company, I fell into a sinkhole of uncertainty and low self-esteem. I was more confused than ever, so I obtained jobs without much thought to the pay or the culture (because, let’s face it—back then there weren’t that many jobs to be had, so you couldn’t be picky even if you wanted).
I landed in a position that was so low paying with such a toxic culture that I came home crying every day. The job only lasted a year. Then, for the next four years, I worked in the financial services industry—first at a bank, then at a credit union. By 2012, things were starting to rebound a bit, and yet, I didn’t feel that I was making any progress.
I had been there for a year and a half when a great position opened up in their accounting department (this mind you, was a small credit union with roughly 115 employees, and therefore, opportunities like that didn’t open up very often). By then, I was pregnant with my first child, and had already been rejected for another position prior in their call center. Because I didn’t want to face another rejection, I decided not to apply for the position.
The person who got the job was a fellow teller named Bri. Much to her surprise and mine, she got the position with no prior experience. In fact, she graduated with a degree in communications. But after knowing her for several years by that point, I knew how organized and consistent she was — two traits that would make a good accountant.
I remember talking to her after she got the news. I told her how happy I was that she got the job, and that the main reason why I didn’t apply was because I was five months pregnant, and that I would only be trained for a few months before going on maternity leave. She knew that I was taking some accounting courses and was looking for a new avenue to pursue. Bri told me that I should’ve applied, and I said I didn’t feel right competing with her. Now looking back on it, I knew how foolish that was. Pregnancy, after all, is a protected class, and they couldn’t discriminate based on that fact alone.
This is just an example of the many opportunities passed over the years, simply because I didn’t want to experience failure. Little did I know that failure only serves to bring people back up again. I truly felt like my twenties was spent fluttering my hand in the wind, with no sense of direction whatsoever, and no way of figuring it out, all because I graduated during the recession, got laid off, and didn’t get any (financial) help from anybody. I felt myself partly to blame because I wasn’t prepared enough for the recession. Now that I think about it, I think, “How can you possibly prepare for a major financial meltdown?” There is no business school or college course that talks about these kinds of things and how to prepare for them.
Now, looking back ten years ago, I feel exactly what the Hidden Brain podcast said–a sense of nostalgia marked by sadness but also with a certain level of triumph. I feel that many of us, regardless of what generation we were born into, will enter our thirties with more wisdom than we had in our twenties. Our experiences are influenced by the economic changes of our generation, and I feel that because I was amongst many of those who came of age during the recession that it only made me more resilient and aware of life’s volatility. I realized that I needed to move on—that blame and bitterness about the situation wasn’t going to change it. The fact of the matter is—I survived it, and thus it will go into my memory as a story I can tell to my children.