Call it the tale of two stereotypes. In one, Millennials are job-hopping crypto-crazed maniacs who would rather buy bitcoin than bonds. In the other, they’re a generation so scared by the Great Recession that they cling to any chance for job security and keep their money (what little they have left after student loan payments) in cash.
Of course, with so many Millennials around (they’ll displace the Baby Boomers next year as America’s largest living adult generation) you can find examples to fit any stereotype But a decade after the financial crisis, there’s evidence that as a whole, the generation and its attitudes toward work and money have indeed been influenced by the Great Recession.
Stefan Nagel, a finance professor at the The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, says he’s seen this phenomenon with Depression-era babies. In a 2009 study, he found that people who experienced low stock-market returns throughout their lives (such as those who came of age in the 1960s) report lower willingness to take financial risk and are less likely to participate in the stock market. And if they do participate, they invest a lower fraction of their liquid assets in stocks.
This is true for today’s Millennials, who may have a more pessimistic attitude toward traditional investing, he says. In fact, 30% of Millennials say cash is their long-term investment of choice, while previous generations lean toward stocks, according to a recent Bankrate survey.
Ironically, wariness of stocks and traditional investments may explain some of the interest in bitcoin too—an outlet for those who might, in a different era, have been day-trading stocks. (It’s probably no coincidence that Robinhood, the free stock trading app designed for Millennials, really took off after it offered free crypto trading too.)
What about the career side? Graduating into a deep recession has forced Millennials to take more risks professionally, but that hardly makes them flighty. In fact, there’s some evidence that they are actually switching jobs less frequently than previous generations did at the same age.
“They are taking unconventional paths. It started out of necessity really. They were forced to think creatively,” says Kate Wauck, head of communications at robo-advisor Wealthfront. In a recent survey of 1,000 of their Millennial clients, one-third said the financial crisis changed their career path and slowed their professional growth. But 77% believe their current career is setting them up for long-term success.
“We were a little bit stunted when graduating. We really had to figure out how to make this situation work for us,” Wauck says. “I’m so inspired by our clients because you see the creativity that came from it. I think people were willing to take riskier moves than if they graduated with that corporate job.”
Today, they’re more cautious as Millennials fear another economic recession in the coming years. Eighty-one percent of those Wealthfront surveyed save money in an emergency fund and 71% don’t spend above their means.
Here are a few true stories of Millennial setbacks and recovery. (To share yours, email me at email@example.com.)
The career change
As an education major at the College of New Jersey, Joyce Lee felt “protected” from the financial devastation around her.
“I was on an education track, and there was nothing more guaranteed than education because you will always need teachers,” she says. “That’s the thought that I had.”
Then, in 2008, Lee’s father got laid off from his job as a high-end jeweler— inopportune timing for a man with a son at New York University and a daughter in her junior year at TCNJ. Lee says she and her brother quickly got part-time jobs to help pay for their college expenses, but she still graduated in 2009 with about $80,000 in student loan debt. Like many in her generation, she moved back in with her parents.
Then she saw her “guaranteed” job slip away, too, after newly-appointed Governor Chris Christie’s attack on the teacher’s union. “My very guaranteed job evaporated because teachers weren’t retiring,” Lee, 31, says.
She decided to apply for a call center job and, during the interview, she was asked to describe her hobbies. When she described her love of “tinkering with computers,” she was immediately hired in tech support—a career she’s stayed with today. Three years into living at her parent’s house, she says she was able to pay off her debts, and two years after that, she moved out.
Her biggest lesson? Build an emergency fund. Currently, Lee and her husband have a fund that would sustain them for eight-months if they completely lost their jobs.
“The thing I wish our generation was better at was starting to be more open about talking with money,” she says. “I don’t understand because I don’t know my reality. I wish people would talk about it more so it removes some of the shame. Everyone has a story and we can all help each other out.”
The finance blogger
For Jason Butler, 2008 was a “tale of two years.” The then-24-year-old graduated from Savannah State University in May with a degree in marketing. After traveling for a few months, he buckled down on his job search at the end of the summer. Then the Recession hit.
For months, Butler says, he searched unsuccessfully for jobs, and instead fell back on his college part time job: working at the Paula Deen Retail Store in downtown Savannah. What had been good money in college was barely enough for him to pay rent, especially when he was facing about $28,000 in student loan debt.
“That was a time when my loans were close to 103 days past due,” Butler, now 34, says. “I had to make a decision: pay those loans or pay my rent and my cell phone.”
Butler considered going back to college just for the convenience of getting his loans deferred. About a year later, in November 2009, he was able to get his first job as a bank teller for Wells Fargo. Disillusioned with the banking industry, he quit two years later and joined Clayton State University as a financial aid representative. But managing his own finances wasn’t any easier.
“It was like a had a bulls-eye on my back or something.That was a tough time for me. My credit score had dropped to the 500s in 2011 and 2012,” he says. “I think it was a result of crash. Part of the reason my score was so low was because of late payments.”
Today, Butler works as a senior financial aid counselor at Georgia State University during the day. At night, he runs his financial advice blog, The Butler Journal, and manages his two side hustles: making and selling t-shirts, and managing his eBay store, which he started right after the financial crash. Typically, Butler says he pockets about $300 to $400 a month from eBay, but a good month can bring in $500 in sales.
But he’s still working on paying off his student debt (now up to $50,000 after attempting to get another degree in 2012, but dropping out a year later). This, he says, is a direct result of the Recession, which stunted his financial and professional growth.
“[The crash] pretty much gave us a swift kick in the you-know-what,” he says. “A lot of companies were not hiring at all. It took me a year and a half to get that first full-time job. If I was able to get hired in August or September of 2008, who knows what would have been.”
The lucky break
As a 2007 San Diego State graduate with a degree in event planning, Jenn Tickes was nervous. She knew event planning was one of the first roles to get cut when a company faces hard times. And in the year after her graduation, a lot of companies did..
With $100,000 in student loan debt, Tickes started looking for jobs in San Francisco with little success.
“I didn’t really know what to do,” she says. “I ended up bartending for a few months while couch surfing and living out of my car. So I posted my resume on Craigslist.”
Soon after, an agency reached out to her about a sales position at a small, unknown 15-person startup in Selma, California. She started at Yelp in February 2008 making $30,000 a year. When the company went public four years later, Tickes says she was able to sell a lot of her options to pay off her debts.
Now a senior sales development manager at Hired, she’s just starting to invest in her future and pour money into her 401(k).
“I think that in starting work, I was so far behind financially that unless I had really rich parents, there was no way I could have lived in the Bay Area or bought a house,” Tickes, 34, says. “Now I’m in my mid-30s, and I don’t ponder the question of ‘Do I want a family or not?’ because, finally, I’m doing OK. But in planning for my future, I’m so far behind.”
The graduate student
Looking at her impending college graduation in 2010, Kristen Tyrrell saw two choices: enter the job market fighting over shifts at Starbucks, or wait.
Tyrrell was a junior majoring in economics at Pepperdine University during the crash. “At the career fair my junior year, there weren’t companies there,” she recalls. “They just weren’t sending people.”
Instead of gambling on the job market, she decided to take on $50,000 in student loan debt and go to business school abroad at the Hult International Business School in London. When she graduated in 2011, she only had one job offer: a part-time internship at a Boston consulting firm for $2,000 a month. The salary didn’t go very far—Tyrrell says her rent was $1,100 a month and her student loan payment was $500 a month. Luckily, after three months, she was brought on full-time.
Now 30, Tyrrell remains, as she puts it, “particularly bitter” toward Baby Boomers, who she believes set up her generation for financial failure, forcing them to play “catch up for the rest of our lives.” Like many other Millennials, she has left the consulting world and jumped into a startup as COO. Her new company, Catch, offers a portable personal benefits platform for freelancers.
“I think that when I was younger, I’d always assumed I’d be at a big company,” Tyrrell says. “Watching the Recession and watching people's wealth just disappear made it clear to me that I needed to spend my day working on something I just care about.”