To the Class of 2020 From A Survivor of the Class of 2008.

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Lately, we’ve focused a lot of attention on this year’s seniors. People even thought it was fun, for some reason, to post their own senior pictures to supposedly honor you. However, I’ve also gotten a lot of questions from current and former students who are about to graduate and want to know how to navigate their future during both a global pandemic and a potential economic freefall.

Yep, it sucks. It’s not fun to complete a life goal, a dream you & your parents had for you since you were little in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. I know this because I graduated from college in May of 2008 at the height of the “Great Recession”.

My generation saw record-high unemployment, economic uncertainty, massive layoffs and rescinded job offers. Some of us moved in with our parents, or went to graduate school and are climbing out of debt. You’ve had to rush back home, and have been stuck with your family for an untold number of days. No, it wasn’t fair then, and it isn’t fair now. Yes, it is indicative of the multiple failures of so many systems and we need to be able to have a conversation about that and create change. Despite the situation, you also need to be able to put food on your table and survive.

While we haven’t ominously named your economic condition yet (my suggestion: the “Covid Collapse”) I thought I might share some lessons my generation experienced in a way of encouraging you and allow you to navigate this situation going forward.

1. There is no tutorial, hack, or guide for how to do this.

The first one is the hardest lesson to swallow, and difficult for me to say given that I am trying to do just that. The reality is this has never happened before in living memory. Sure, we can go back to the Influenza epidemic of 1918 but you aren’t likely to find a memo from a graduating seniors about how they handled that. The cold hard truth is that absolutely no one knows what this will mean long term with any degree of certainty. This situation is fluid and no one has experienced anything like this.

That means that you need to look inward, not outward. The only way out of this crisis is through and it is your own actions and ingenuity that will get you there. For most of your young adult life you’ve likely been able to turn to others, your social networks, teachers, parents, mentors, and friends for advice and perspective. You’ve moved along a steady and defined pathway of preparing for the high school tests, doing the college assignments, getting the internships, and following the lead of how various institutions have shaped you. This might lead you to believe that you will always be able to turn to someone else for the answer. Those conditions are now changed. You will now have to accept the fact that there is no “right way” to respond, handle, or act in this crisis.

It also means that there are those in your life who will try to tell you what you “need to do” and you might resent them for this. Try not to. This is just their way of showing you they care, even if it sounds wrapped in judgment or unmet expectations. Try to take what they offer, but understand that the way forward will come from your own mindset and actions. You need to control what you CAN control and trust in fate, faith, the universe, or something else to make the most of it.

2. Don’t talk yourself out of anything.

You might be one of those who is looking at everything and thinking “I’ll never be able to find a job” or deciding not to apply for that program or that opportunity because you THINK it will be so competitive now that it’s not worth it. Pivot, don’t panic. Yes, you’ll find no shortage of evidence on how hard it is, or how worse people think it will get, but those people will come to the same conclusion you almost did and not even put their name in the hat. Treat your job search like an Olympic sport, you need to train every day to get better at it, and be willing to take risks to get rewards. Better to have tried and gotten rejected than to not have put something in at all. Don’t worry if your degree isn’t the ideal fit, your value is not just in what you majored in. Plus, you might be surprised at where things take you. Despite the failing economy you WILL hear about people who got jobs, who got into prestigious programs etc. Don’t let the doom and gloom prevent you from taking action.

You cannot wait for the right situation to fall into place. You’re going to have to do what you can to get where you want to go because if we’re being honest you are now swimming upstream. You can do it, others have done it before. It’s cliché to note this but the founders of Uber started their company in March of 2009 at the height of the economic downturn. Caterpillar launched its first tracktype tractor at the height of the great depression. Out of this there will be new opportunities and new ways of living and being, so you need to stay open to the possibilities that are around you.

Pay attention to where people are saying they need help and join with others to provide a solution which could offer alternative ways of bringing in revenue for yourself. Control what YOU can control — the applications you put in, the follow through you offer, and you might end up as one of the success stories of your generation.

3. Grab on, and hold on.

Now is not the time to turn down any work that comes your way. In an economic downturn, scarcity will be the name of the game, but despite a lot of negative news and reinforcement some opportunities will be available, but in places and industries you might not have initially considered. Try to take the world as it is not as you wish it to be. All that talk people served you about doing your dream job, about waiting and taking the best opportunity? Those were great pieces of advice during a 10-year consecutive economic growth. Things were expanding, and so were opportunities. Now though you need to think in terms of short term survival. While major sectors of the economy are going to be hit hard there will be some areas that improve or grow. Use your networks and when you hear about an opportunity, jump at the chance to get some, any, kind of stable work. You need to grab onto any kind of work and hold on for a year or two while things get to some feeling of recovery or on an upswing. This will not be a popular opinion. You’ll feel better about future opportunities if you are in a stable position now.

If you have a job now, or a stable opportunity on the horizon, hold on. You might not love it, but if you can possibly stomach it hold on until things look a little less gloomy then make your move.

4. The fundamentals still apply.

A lot of people will think that all of the rules for working went out the window with the pandemic, but people are still people. People value being thanked, they value people who solve problems, and they value solutions. The good news is that the fundamentals of success still function regardless of the economic situation. Now more than ever how you craft your image and reputation matters. So much gets taken for granted, if you get a job interview, send them a handwritten thank-you note in the mail. It doesn’t have to be on stationary, but any effort will be recognized. Likewise, your digital presence will become more important than ever. Be active on professional networking sites and forums, and create a digital version of your resume that pops. Comment on companies Instagram’s, discover who is talking about what in the space you want to be in. If you have the technology film a video of yourself and give a short elevator pitch about who you are and how you will bring value to a position. Post it on youtube and get everyone who asks you “what are you doing now” to share it with people THEY know. Creativity thrives in constraint so don’t be afraid to stand out.

It’s still true that who you know matters. Build networks of people who can point you in the direction of where there is still movement in the economy. Use every connection you have and feel no shame about this.

If you are lucky enough to have a job right now, try to see opportunities and speak up about ideas you have and be willing to do the work to make them happen. A great leader once said to me,

“If every time I see you, you only talk to me about problems then I come to associate you with problems. Bring me solutions, and bring me wins.”

There will be a lot of people complaining all the time about the changes coming, be the person who provides people with at least some GOOD news. This does not mean being a blind optimist, or a yes person, it merely means that you need to share some of the good happening to balance out the barrage of crisis messaging your leaders are both giving and receiving.

5. Be a team player.

If you have a job a way to survive the downturns is to do the things no one else wants to do but need to be done. If you are new in an organization look around at the workflow and figure out the valuable tasks that few people want to do for whatever reason. Figure out a way to ask teams around you for the tasks that they can’t seem to get done and take those on. Be a team player and people will value that they can give you anything and know it will get done. In 2009 my friends and I saw plenty of “positions” get eliminated that were occupied by people who made every task a trial, only to see some of that work get redistributed to other people who had better attitudes and work ethics.

When management makes decisions about layoffs there will be people in a room talking about positions and what can be eliminated. Make sure as many people as possible in that room can speak to the necessity and value of your work. The best way to do this is to find projects that touch multiple areas. Unfortunately, now is not the time to say “That’s not my job”.

6. Use your strengths.

You have advantages that my generation didn’t have. You know what everyone is trying to figure out now? How to engage people 100% online. You know what you know how to do without thinking too hard about? Engaging people 100% online. My generation just now got comfortable with Instagram and now we are supposed to do dances and lip-synchs and find the right beauty make-up. Use your social media skills and market yourself. Or if you have a passion for video, photos, writing, or creating any kind of content make a way for yourself. You never know you might have just created a job that would never have existed for you otherwise.

7. Have Patience.

You have no control if it takes you 2 months or 12 to get you on your feet and established. Do not feel shame over this. You need to do and make the decisions that are best suited for your survival at this time. Trust that things take time to develop and it may mean that you have to carry out tasks for a long time before the results manifest. That is ok. Give yourself and others some grace and you’ll be forever grateful for the lesson you learned from it.

8. Accept that this will shape you going forward.

My generation is forever shaped by the fact that we experienced 9/11 in high school, worried we’d get drafted into a new never-ending war, watched the entire world landscape change, then got through college only to graduate during the height of an economic crisis. Then 12 years later as we FINALLY feel like we are established in some kind of career and are making some financial headway into our mid-30s we get THIS. It is valid that this experience will come to shape how you think. You will probably have to unlearn some habits you’ll develop over the next year or so. However, that doesn’t mean that this experience won’t also shape you in positive ways. My generation has always understood that everything we know can change in an instant, we are more skeptical but have also been more innovative as a result. I am not sure what this time will do to shape you, but trust that it will and when it does it can be a good thing.

This is not to say that our sorrows should not be witnessed; that our collective and anticipatory grief should not be attended to. My intention is to encourage you to acknowledge our circumstances but also choose our response to these times. Choose focus, control, grace, and kindness; choose neither to avoid felling everything at once nor to avoid feeling anything and make everything diminished by a joke. Choose the opportunity to better yourself through the knowledge you can gain from your education, even if the mode of that education seems far removed from what you are used to.

You are smart, brilliant, resilient, caring, just, and capable. You can do this. You really can.

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