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‘I remember thinking – how am I ever going to earn any money?’: How 2020 is adding salt to the wounds of millennials scarred by the 2008 crisis

Alexandra Jones speaks to members of the ‘Lost Generation’ about the toxic uncertainty of careers bookended by unprecedented recessions – and some advice on how to fight back financially

Wednesday 26 August 2020 17:06
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Grim forecast: ‘It felt like you were at the mercy of forces way out of your control and no matter what you did, you’d never win’
Grim forecast: ‘It felt like you were at the mercy of forces way out of your control and no matter what you did, you’d never win’

Shall I tell you what’s funny? That I was brought up to believe that adulthood could be measured out in square feet of real estate and in steps on the career ladder. But then I graduated from university in 2009, a year into the “worst recession in living memory”. People queued around the block as Northern Rock went down, there were no jobs and the jobs that did exist paid tiny wages that never went up. Meanwhile house prices skyrocketed so that buying even a shipping container with an airhole became out of reach, unless you had family wealth to draw on, which I didn’t.

And then 11 years later, when GDP had finally recovered and wages were catching up, along came a global pandemic that caused another “worst recession in living memory” – one which is, yet again, disproportionately affecting the incomes of the millennial generation.

OK, so it’s not “ha-ha” funny. By almost every metric the lives of my generation are less stable and more stressful than the lives of the generations that came before. Those born between 1981 and 1996 are more likely to experience working-age poverty and a third will never own a house. But I guess you have to laugh or you’ll cry.

Most of us remember 2008-09 and the sense that we were free-falling into an uncertain and unaccommodating future. And the more you speak to the people whose twenties have been sandwiched between two massive recessions, the more you see that it’s not just a fiscal impact. Unable to reach the milestones set out for them by a society still largely trapped in a 20th-century mindset (a job for life and homeownership for all), many millennials were left asking existential questions about themselves and their place in the world. This roiling anxiety has come to define the generation (which does make me wonder how weird we’re all going to be after another 10 years in the economic doldrums).

Event producer Rachel Berry, 32, was at university in 2008. In the decade that followed she built a successful career within the events industry, eventually going freelance and working everywhere from the Middle East to Puerto Rico, helping to project manage live events, product launches and conferences. “So that’s all going well this year,” she deadpans. Despite her success, Rachel points out that her career often felt out of her hands. “I spent so many years just taking every job I was offered, every project that came my way. Sometimes I’d be juggling five projects at once, but I didn’t feel like I had the luxury of turning something down.

“For me, that’s the legacy of 2008 – when you start your career in the middle of a recession, you internalise the scarcity mentality. I see it a lot in my peers – this feeling that nothing we do is ever quite enough because resources are limited and this might be the last job you ever get.” Despite this, the years Rachel spent putting in 16 hour days had paid off. “This year was the first time I felt like I owned my career, rather than it owning me. I was just getting to the point where I was choosing the jobs I wanted to take. I was starting to hone my expertise and specialise in certain areas of my profession. I was just about earning enough to feel comfortable – and finally felt like I had some control over my life. And now the events industry is basically shut down. I’d say this has set me back about five years in my career, and is pretty much decimating my savings.”

I didn’t receive an in-job pay rise for the first six years of my career, and didn’t feel like I could ever ask

It’s a sentiment that 34-year-old Stephen*, who works in public affairs for a major bank in Singapore, can sympathise with. “I’d say my career to date was defined by the 2008 economic crash,” he explains. “It felt like you were at the mercy of forces way out of your control and no matter what you did, you’d never win.” Like me, he graduated in 2009. “Your position was never guaranteed. That element of uncertainty was OK at first but it became toxic as the years wore on – I didn’t receive an in-job pay rise for the first six years of my career, and didn’t feel like I could ever ask.”

In 2018, the Resolution Foundation – an independent think tank that focuses on improving living standards – published a report which laid out in depressing detail the extent to which the 2008 recession had impacted the wages of the generation that was entering the labour market at the beginning of the 2010s.

As Fahmida Rahmanm, a research and policy analyst who worked on the 2018 report, tells me: “We knew that 2008 was a pay recession – unemployment didn’t rise as much as it typically does in an economic downturn, instead people experienced a huge hit to their pay packet. What stood out, though, was the fact that even 10 years later, wages for the millennial age group in particular still hadn’t really recovered. That pay scarring is something they carried with them throughout the decade.”

UK facing a 'severe recession the likes of which we haven't seen'

Stephen left the UK in a bid to change his fortunes. “I left my friends and family behind. It has been an amazing experience but I certainly feel like I’ve missed out on a lot of important moments. So yeah, 2008 changed the course of my life completely.” In comparison, Rachel decided to stay closer to home. “I think my dream would have been to move to London but the cost of living seemed too high considering that at the time there was all this pressure on new graduates to intern for free. I remember just thinking, ‘how am I ever going to earn any money?’”

Kishan Patel left school aged 16 with “a handful of GCSEs” and went on to build a successful career in the retail sector. “I left school in 2008 and I applied for over 150 jobs before I even got an interview. I was unemployed for 18 months in the end,” the 28-year-old says. “I think it accounts for some of the anxiety people in our generation express now – like, you just weren’t considered valuable and your future was shaky.” Like Rachel, whose work has dried up thanks to the pandemic, he recently lost his job. “I was finally feeling steady in my career and finally saw a path towards a bright future. Now that’s gone and I feel just like I did when I was 16, walking round town with my CVs.”

As Kishan’s story shows the upcoming recession will yet again change the career trajectories of this generation. “It will lead to further pay scarring,” adds Fahmida. “Even for those still in work – they will find it harder to progress because the money just isn’t there. Pay rises will probably be smaller. As with 2008, this will all have an impact on the generation’s ability to save for the future. Pensions will be hit – it’s inevitable.”

There’s that sense that the good times are over – again. Though, I guess we never really got the good times

Stephen was due to be promoted in May, but that has been put on hold indefinitely. “There’s that sense that the good times are over – again,” he says. “Though, I guess we never really got the good times.” He is considering moving back to the UK to be closer to his family. “Maybe one good thing is that most people of our generation will probably stop striving for that 2.4 kids, house-in-the-suburbs dream and just live however they want.”

In fact, two recessions in such quick succession are likely to have profound consequences not just for individuals but for the long-term economic prospects of the country. “It’s incomparable to anything that came before so it’s hard to say what will happen,” says Fahmida. “I’d like to speculate that we’ll come out of it and that people’s spending will recover. But I doubt that’s going to happen for a very long time. I think we’re going to see a shift away from spending on the high street – we are in a recession and that’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

Kishan isn’t yet looking for a new job – as with live events, the retail sector has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. “I survived before and I’ll survive again. You learn to put your pride aside and do whatever you need to to make ends meet.”

When all her contracts were cancelled at the beginning of lockdown, Rachel took a job project managing the building of “overspill” morgues. “It was kind of macabre,” she says. “But it did really put things into perspective. The things that we learned from the previous recession, I don’t know whether they’ll be of use to us any more – it feels like a whole new ballgame.”

In fact, there are a number of significant differences between the recession of 2008 and the one we’re facing now – most notably, the fact that 2008 was caused by systemic failures within the worlds of finance and real estate. These systemic failures led to the increase in “bad debt” which ultimately proved to be unsustainable – and caused those two sectors to collapse. This time around, a health crisis has meant that global production and consumption have all but ground to a halt. Economists seem to change their predictions daily when it comes to the shape of the recovery – but what most agree on is the fact that recovery is likely to be slower for some sectors of the economy, and that there are some – like retail and live events – which may never return to pre-Covid levels.

“It feels like we’re operating in a completely different world,” says Rachel, “like I’m starting again from scratch. And it’s frustrating to be starting again but at least I’ve got my health.”

* Name changed at interviewee’s request

How to save for the future in a recession

Time is your secret weapon when it comes to saving and investing for your retirement (iStock)

Fiona Elston, retirement product manager at the millennial-focused savings and investments app Moneybox, provides her advice for how to look after your personal finances in an inclement economic climate.

Take a ‘little by little’ approach to building sustainable financial habits

“A key lesson when it comes to saving for retirement is that the earlier you start, the better. By starting with round-ups or a small, regular deposit, you can set money aside without even thinking about it and without making any radical changes to your lifestyle. When you save into your pension, you’re also getting a boost from the tax relief offered by the government (at least 20 per cent for most people), which makes these small deposits add up even more quickly.”

Track down old pension pots

“The ABI estimates that around £19.4bn worth of pension pots in the UK are “lost”, as people have lost track of old workplace pensions. Research conducted by Moneybox last year highlighted that not only do 60 per cent of millennials not know how to access their old pension pots, 87 per cent don’t know what their money is being invested in while 89 per cent do not know what fees are being charged.” The first step: log into the government’s pension tracing service.

Think long term

“Time is your secret weapon when it comes to saving and investing for your retirement. The longer you invest, the more likely you are to ride out the waves of the stock market, including recessions, and give your retirement savings the chance to grow. When you continue to contribute during market ups and downs, you buy shares at varied prices, which could be beneficial in the long term. You also benefit from “compound returns”, which are the returns that you make on your returns.

“Simply explained, this means that the returns that you make on Year One investments are reinvested alongside your original investments in Year Two, and so on. This means that your money can grow exponentially over time, all by itself. With your pension pots being locked away until your retirement age, you also won’t be tempted to try to access those savings early.”

Save half your age

“A rule of thumb is that you save around half your age as a percentage of your annual salary towards retirement. So if you’re 26 years old, this means you should aim to save 13 per cent of your annual salary. This may sound a lot, but don’t worry, you don’t have to save all of this by yourself! This percentage includes all contributions from you, from your employer via an auto enrolment scheme, and from tax relief offered by the government.

“On average, most people contribute around 8 per cent of their salary (together with their employer) into a pension pot – so you may be closer to that annual target than you think. Simple saving habits, such as regular contributions or round-ups could be a great way to boost your pot further.”

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