I came of age during the Great Recession. After graduating from Stanford in 2006 and earning an MFA from Boston University in 2007, I believed that I could do anything I wanted. That quickly changed when I arrived in Las Vegas, where my mom had moved a few years earlier from New York. I didn’t know it at the time, but the economy was on the verge of collapse, and the job market was quickly drying up.
In September 2007, I drove around Vegas applying for jobs at supermarkets and clothing stores, dropping my resume into black holes. I managed to land a part-time teaching gig at a community college, but even with four classes a semester, I’d make only about $10,000 a year. To supplement my income, I got a job as a bookseller at Borders for $7.25 an hour.
An older friend from Boston asked me why my emails sounded so bitter.
“You didn’t come out of college only to have your degree turn into a useless piece of paper,” I wanted to write back.
As an English major, I’d received no career counseling. “Do what you love” was the mantra of the day. I saw myself becoming a book editor or university professor with ease. Because I possessed a degree from Stanford, I imagined that someone would come calling and offer me my dream job.
Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth. I blamed my college for coddling me, leaving me unprepared for the bleak economic reality that awaited me beyond the campus green. And I blamed myself for overestimating my fitness for the real world, for being so naïve — I’d pictured cheerily and industriously working in an office not unlike the seminar rooms where I received my education, not shelving books and ringing up purchases at a cash register.
Whenever I started feeling sorry for myself, I thought of Jason, who worked with me at Borders. Jason had a wife and three kids to support. He worked at the bookstore by day and was up again before dawn for the breakfast shift at a bagel shop. He slept three or four hours a night, and I watched as the pressure wore down his body. Unlike him, I had only myself to worry about, and I knew that someday I’d work somewhere else. And yet I couldn’t seem to escape the quicksand of my low-paying job; the longer I stayed, the more demoralized and unmotivated I became. Then, a year in, the stock market crashed.
My mom was laid off from the airline where she’d been a flight attendant for close to 40 years. The community college could offer me only one course to teach the following semester. Borders was in serious financial trouble. Stressed coworkers snapped at the customers, and one even put his fist through the breakroom wall. Rage simmered everywhere — rage over low wages, lack of job mobility, a sense that things would never get better. Everywhere I looked, people were pissed off. I was forced to consider what I might do if I lost both my jobs.
My academic record alone wasn’t going to help me get my foot in the door at a company — I’d learned that lesson. I realized I’d have to market myself, and as someone who suffers from social anxiety, that terrified me. Landing a new position would require, without any sort of guidance, turning my “activities list” — which still contained high-school extracurriculars like field hockey and leadership council — into a one-page, professional-looking resume. I’d need to encapsulate my goals and skills in a tagline on LinkedIn and present myself in the best possible light online.
Hardest of all, I’d have to survive job interviews. I needed to learn how to answer questions like “What is your biggest weakness?” in a way that sounded both self-assured and humble. I had to get comfortable with small talk and awkward pauses. I tried to train myself to sweat only under my arms so my palms would remain dry for handshakes and to lower my voice at the ends of sentences so I wouldn’t be accused of “up speak.” On one of my first phone interviews, I was asked about my desired salary. I replied, “Oh, I don’t care what you pay me — I just really want the job!” I had to learn to negotiate: In the future, I’d be sure to provide a salary range, if not an exact figure, based on careful research of similar positions.
After months of searching, I found a position at a non-profit and was soon on my way back to California. A few years later, armed with the skills the economy had forced me to acquire, I entered Berkeley Law School. There, while working at a consumer justice clinic, I saw the effects of the Recession — lost jobs and homes, massive credit card debt, ruined health — and I decided to pursue securities law, to learn how the crisis happened and what could be done from a regulatory standpoint to prevent it from repeating.
In a way, I’m glad I came of age in a time of economic distress. The Recession shaped how I looked at my career path and the world in general. Things that were once so important to me, like striving for straight A’s, suddenly seemed frivolous. I could no longer hide behind a computer screen or a book, feeling satisfied to exist in my own bubble — nor did I want to. An education is just the beginning. It’s how you use it that counts.
Taylor Altman is a civil litigation attorney practicing in the securities, employment, and maritime industries in San Francisco.