When graduating into a recession actually makes you happier

Matt Levin Nov 11, 2022
Heard on:
While research suggests that graduating into a recession hampers future employment and wages, it can also bring about longer-term happiness. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

When graduating into a recession actually makes you happier

Matt Levin Nov 11, 2022
Heard on:
While research suggests that graduating into a recession hampers future employment and wages, it can also bring about longer-term happiness. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It’s reunion day at the UC Davis School of Law in Northern California. A pretty even mix of baby boomer, Gen X and millennial alumni are milling about the buffet line for crudités and bacon-wrapped …something.

Class of 1982 graduate Cheryl Gertler has that squinty look on her face of, ‘I think I know you. Do I know you?’

“I can’t recognize anybody,” said Gertler, laughing. “A lot of gray and white hair here, so I’m not sure anymore.”

Alumni from ’82 are here, as are grads from the class of 1992, 2002 and 2007 — all classes that graduated in or around a recession.

Research suggests that graduating into a recession hurts future employment and wages for at least a decade, maybe longer. And with the prospect of a Federal Reserve-induced downturn coming sometime in the near future, that’s a scary fact for young lawyers, who know that certain parts of the legal industry can be especially vulnerable to the business cycle.

That was certainly the case for Gertler when she was a law student.

“Low wages and not being able to purchase very much, people were not buying things,” is how Gertler describes the early 1980s. “I remember visiting my parents up in Oregon, and it just felt like nobody could really spend money anymore.”

For all the glib memes about how easy and cheap everything was for baby boomers, the unlucky ones like Gertler who started their careers in the early ’80s faced a gnarly economy. Inflation was high, like today. 

But very unlike today, the unemployment rate was over 10%. With a dearth of law jobs out there, Gertler gave up pretty quickly on her job search. She instead opted for a fellowship in Europe, followed by another move abroad.

“I decided to go to Japan,” she said. “And study the Japanese culture and study the language.”

By the time she returned to the U.S. in the mid-’80s, the American economy was recovering. And every law firm wanted lawyers who could land clients from an emerging economic giant in East Asia.

“Fortunately because I had Japan all over my resume, I was all of a sudden very marketable,” Gertler said.

Now, Gertler likes her life as an immigration attorney in Los Angeles. But if she could turn back time, would she choose a different and more lucrative year to come out of law school? 

“See, for me, I would not,” she said. “Because had I graduated in a different time with more jobs, I would have not have had the guts to do what I did.”

The ’80s boom times Gertler returned to stopped abruptly in the early 1990s. Unemployment peaked at about 7% in 1992 — right when Chancela Al-Mansour was deciding what type of lawyer she wanted to be: public interest, or something more corporate and better compensated.

“At that time, I remember thinking, ‘I missed the boat, because I graduated in 1992,'” said Al-Mansour.

She said the bad economy and the discrimination she experienced in interviews tipped the scales toward her heart; she now directs a fair housing nonprofit. 

Every now and then, she does fantasize about what it would be like if she took the other route. She lives in Los Angeles and has some colleagues in entertainment law who graduated a few years later and get to do some glamorous travel. Plus, it would be a nice antidote to some of the stereotyping she encountered.

“Anytime I went to a big event, and they’d look at me and they’d say, ‘What do you do?'” Al-Mansour said. “‘I’m a civil rights attorney.’ ‘Oh of course you’re a civil rights attorney, you’re Black.’ Every once in a while I would like to say, ‘Well, you know, I’m a major corporate attorney with blah blah blah.'”

Still, Al-Mansour recalls fondly her first few years working on fair housing and other civil rights issues in in Los Angeles in the upheaval that followed the police beating of Rodney King. Just like Gertler, she also wouldn’t want to change the year she graduated.

I don’t know if I would have been as needed in any other time,” she said.

Sure, there’s sample bias here. If you hate how your career turned out, there’s not much appeal to seeing all your successful classmates at the reunion. But the whole “recessions have a silver lining” thing? There’s empirical research that backs it up.

“So, recession graduates tend to be happier with their jobs both early in their careers, as well as [a] long time later,” said Emily Bianchi, a professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.

Using survey data, Bianchi studied how recessions impacted college graduates’ self-reported levels of job satisfaction during an economic downturn and years afterward. Counterintuitively, she found that recession grads tended to be happier than peers who entered the market in boom times — regardless of race, gender or generation.

“The odds are when you land that first job, you’re going to be incredibly relieved,” said Bianchi. “You’re probably going to feel a sense of gratitude. That sense endures.”

And if you’re lucky enough to keep your job during a recession, there may be unexpected opportunities.

Class of 2007 graduate Carissa Beecham said she feels exceptionally grateful she avoided the layoffs and foreclosures wrought by the Great Recession. For her, the housing market downturn was kind of a blessing. She and her husband were able to buy a house.

“I don’t think I’d be standing in front of you here, living in the house I do, with two kids and still be [a] working professional if I were coming into the situation at any other time,” she said.

Of course, there’s a reason the Great Recession was called the “Great Recession” and not the “Recession That Was Just As Bad As All The Others.”

Thomas Duda is a current UC Davis Law School student, set to graduate next year. But he earned his undergrad degree in 2008, when the financial crisis hit. 

“I worked in retail, Eddie Bauer,” Duda said. “So I provided exceptional customer service. Let me tell you, that’s not what I went to college for.”

Duda actually enrolled in a master’s program to do historic building preservation but dropped out when he saw no one getting jobs.

If he was in that program in 2005, his whole life would be different, he said. “If I had had the experience of going to graduate school, getting a job in my field of study and securing my first permanent job in that field, there’s no doubt that I would be I would be in that field today.”

But he’s not resentful and likes where he’s at in life now, adding that the recession made him more resilient and more practical. Duda has a job lined up for him next year in employment law, which he picked partly because it’s less vulnerable to economic downturns.

And it sounds like he also wouldn’t want to change what year he graduates law school. But with a possible recession on the horizon, his rationale is different.

“I’m hopefully getting in at just the right moment in time,” Duda said. “Right before the door closes.”

Correction (Nov. 16, 2022): Carissa Beecham’s last name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.

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