We Need to Get Serious about the Next Economic Downturn. Here’s Why (and How)
Historically, our firm rewarded the top performer in our department with a prize of several thousand dollars at the end of the year. The guy the year before even won a trip to Hawaii. But this year—this year would be different. It was the end of 2008 and the hardest and best worker, well, he got a $50 gift card to the Cheesecake Factory—honored only with a disappointing cocktail, a jumbo bowl of penne alfredo, and a slice of Oreo cheesecake. And this was at a major investment management firm; the CEO was/is one of Forbes’ 400 richest people in America. I mean, I guess I get it. We were getting fired by our clients at an absurd rate.* In fact, we were getting so many faxes from clients terminating us as their investment manager that our office’s fax machine literally burst into flames. Completely fried by overwork; a perfect metaphor.
My old work buddies and I laugh about it now, but at the time, it sucked. The economic recession was relentless, a wasteland of hours spent in the office with no forward motion. We were bitter, but we were the lucky ones, making it through the massive layoffs a few months prior. If I had my way, we’d never have to live through another 2008 thru 2010 ever again. Unfortunately, it’s not really up to me to decide.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, my friends, but we’re about due for another 2008. And I desperately want you to be mentally and financially prepared for it, unlike I was in 2008 and 2009. What happened to my colleagues could happen to you. And it could happen soon.
My First Recession
My mentor swiveled towards me: “Did you get a meeting invite for later?”
“Nope,” I responded, without so much as looking up from my monitor. Sensing her intensity, I turned to her, and our eyes met. Hers were turned down at the corners. She understood something I did not.
“I think it’s a good thing you didn’t get one,” she said, her voice compressed.
This was in November of 2008. I was in my first year of work after graduating college.
It was a Friday afternoon when the meeting request went out to about 60% of my department. As meeting invitees made way to the glass fishbowl at the end of the floor, I noticed what my mentor picked up on from the beginning: The top performing and most tenured employees remained seated.
Our department was what you’d expect out of about 60 fresh college graduates. There were plenty of intra-office hookups, ill-fitting polyester suits from Express/Men’s Wearhouse, and zombie-eyed hangovers slurping down coffee by the styrofoam cupful at 6:30 am. We were 22-year-olds adjusting to the (surprise!!) massive letdown of corporate life, but still generally happy to have found work in finance out of college.
The minority of us that remained on the floor swapped confused glances, trying to get any sort of read on the situation through our coworkers’ expressions. The door to the meeting room shut. Shortly after, some lower-to-middle manager who was clearly pleased to have the inside scoop galloped about the open floor plan, delivering messages like he were some God damned modern-day Paul Revere:
“Check your email now, everybody! Follow the instructions!!”
With a stroke of voodoo, an email appeared in our inboxes. Separate and silent but in tandem, we read. Everyone in the meeting room was being laid off. The firm believed that the recession and concurrent stock market decline were going to get worse and the company needed to get lean. But if we were reading this email from the CEO, right now, we were spared. We could come back on Monday.
The email then basically told us to get the hell out of the building so we, the saved ones, would not be lingering while the tear-streaked cleaned out their desks and packed up their things. We waited downstairs for them anyways—they were our friends and we carpooled with these people.
They began bleeding from the elevators, each with a matching brown bag filled with framed photos, San Francisco Giants bobbleheads, and other desk adornments. There were a lot of hugs and false promises to stay in touch, almost as if it were the last day of high school when you know you’re never seeing 99% of those mofos ever again. After about twenty minutes in this eerie, protracted haze, we branched off by carpool and went home. The events of the previous two hours left every single one of us completely bushwhacked.
The following week, we learned the extent of the carnage. Hundreds lost their jobs. The firm went from bustling to somber in the matter of a weekend. In my specific role, seven or eight of us kept our jobs; we began with closer to 30. We had originally been on three or four different teams; now we merged to one small team. The vibe was beyond strange. Those of us that kept our jobs were grateful, yes, but we were also totally skeeved out. How long had management known? Was there going to be another round? Were we next?
For the next several years, we were locked into associate roles and low salaries, especially compared to how much money everyone else at the firm was making. People with no extraordinary skill or work ethic, but who had the fine luck of being born a few years earlier than we. ‘Twas the first frost of what economists now call “income stagnation,” a term so bland it does little justice to the real pain of motionlessness.
Our fallen comrades struggled to find new work and many moved back home with parents. They disappeared off social media. A handful decided to go back to grad school, likely taking out hefty loans because they had little other option. And frustratingly, their misfortune was used as a weapon to keep us mum: The moment we opened our mouths to voice concern over our own situations, we were reminded that “Not everyone was so lucky as you are! Think of the those that don’t even have a job right now!!”
And they weren’t wrong. We could afford to eat and have fun. We had roofs over our heads, and for that, I am so grateful. But in those moments it felt like death by a thousand cuts: Being told that we couldn’t have promotions, or raises, or bonuses, and that we shouldn’t be upset about it—that we should be grateful. Feeling that our time and mental health didn’t matter to the place we spent the largest swath of our lives. Receiving a $50 gift card to the Cheesecake Factory—which mostly tasted like a slap in the face—after 2,500+ hours of exceptional work. Similar stories were widespread across the tail-end of the 2000’s, sparking what is now a raging hellfire of well-justified millennial resentment.
To my utter surprise, the worst off were the ones who were making heaps of money at the firm, and then let go. You’d think that with their mondo salaries these people would’ve had all the savings in the world, but no: They spent the previous five, ten, or fifteen years working for a firm that was hauling ass and basically raining promotions and raises. These people believed the good times would never end, and bought huge houses with considerable mortgages. And they weren’t unique—this shit happens all the time during the good economic times. “Lifestyle inflation,” or buying more and more stuff as your income increases, is a concept popularized (and condemned) by the book, The Millionaire Next Door, by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko. Their studies found that folks in these flashy and competitive professions, like finance, law, and medicine—consistently save too little when times are good because they make vanity purchases.
Then, it all comes crashing down. I heard of more than a few people who had once enjoyed hearty six-figure salaries foreclosing on their homes. People with families and kiddos, uprooted. Looking back, I can’t believe they didn’t see it coming. I can’t believe that I didn’t see it coming! But then again, no one had ever prepared me for an economic recession. I had no how it worked.
How It Works
History tells us a recession happens about once a decade. Roughly. Could be more, could be less.
Carry the one………………HOLY FUCKSTICKS, Y’ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Ladies and gents, we are entering some very dangerous territory. We’re almost nine years out from the last recession. During that time, this country has enjoyed some pretty significant economic growth, despite whatever you’ve heard from politicians and the media. And unfortunately, positive growth has to come to an end, eventually. Economies move in cycles. They always have and always will.
When I see the behavior of the masses during different economic cycles, I’m always reminded of a quote at the beginning of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, a mythical yarn waving together the stories of two families in the Salinas Valley of northern California. It’s a story about generations doomed to repeat the same mistakes as their ancestors; Steinbeck sets the tone by describing the farming people of the region:
“And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.”
In my humble opinion, we are officially at a point where people have forgotten about the dry years.
Now, to be clear, I’m not making a prediction. No one can predict what is going to happen in the economy. I’m also not saying shit hits the fan tomorrow. But look around. Most people I know are happily employed and, like, taking mad fucking vacations. I asked my friend who still works in corporate finance about the vibe he gets from his fellow finance folk, and he reported that “people are getting really cocky.” This is a dangerous sign. Cockiness happens when things have been good enough for long enough that people’s brains are playing tricks on them. People get a false sense of control over their financial situations when really, it’s the all-mighty economic cycle with the control.
So what happens if the economy shits the bed, which it will? People will lose their jobs. From the peak in 2007 to the trough in 2010, the U.S. Labor Market lost 8.8 million jobs. The last recession was egregious, yes, but not unusual from a timing standpoint. When bad economic times happen, layoffs happen. Hiring ceases. Businesses shut down. Freelancers lose work. Very few escape without some pain.
Life’s certainly not good for everyone due to growing income disparity, but unfortunately, this has little command over economic cycles. While I’d love to see prosperity and want economic growth to go on forever and ever, the lil’ economist in me knows this to be a harbinger for what happens next. And it ain’t pretty.
What should you do?
If you don’t have an emergency fund, Jesus Pogosticking Christ, do everything in your power to get one.
Start saving aggressively. Stop buying shit you don’t need. I’m being serious. Ask yourself, 100% honestly, if you’re prepared to live for six months or a year without a job. Understand, deep into your core, that what happened to my colleagues (layoffs) and what happened to me (income stagnation) could happen to you. Please, please don’t get into deals (mortgages, car payments, etc.) that you couldn’t sustain without work for a year. Jobs can and will disappear. And for the love of budgets, don’t make decisions based on raises you haven’t gotten yet!
Credit cards are not a viable backup plan. Don’t make me lecture you on this.
The way I see it, there are only two possible outcomes here: First, a recession doesn’t happen for another three, five, or seven years, which would be fuckin’ grand. Secondly, a recession could come soon. Very soon. So basically, your options are soon-ish or very soon. This means that statistically speaking, now is the only good time to prepare. Please, do not wait one more moment to make these preparations.
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*To be fair, our firm’s success was largely bound to the success of the stock market. And as you may have heard, 2008 and early 2009 saw the stock market slip into full-fledged fax machine dumpster fire. None of this post is to blame my old employer. I think that they did some things wrong but I also know that they can’t control the economic or stock market cycles. And neither can your employer.