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Hey, Gen Z: Here's What Millennials Say About Riding Out a Recession

The older generation learned some important financial and career lessons during the Great Recession.

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This story is part of Recession Help Desk, CNET's coverage of how to make smart money moves in an uncertain economy.

I'm officially one year away from graduating college, and I have no idea what comes next. A job, hopefully. Grad school, maybe? For me, college has been about preparing to enter the workforce, armed with all the skills I need to succeed. Now that it's time to start actually applying for jobs and planning for long-term financial stability, it's pretty scary.

Entering the job market comes with endless challenges, even in a healthy economy. And regardless of the debate over whether we're in an official recession, the past few months have demonstrated how difficult it can be to remain financially stable during a shaky economy. Inflation is at a historic high, and wages are not keeping up with the cost of living. Higher interest rates are also making homes, cars and other big-ticket items more expensive and inaccessible.

And that makes the idea of entering the job market all the more terrifying.

Older generations who have already lived through recessions may be more prepared. Millennials, those born roughly between 1981 and 1996, are feeling some déjà vu. Many in this cohort entered the job market just as the Great Recession was taking place, and the years that followed altered the course of their career and financial trajectory in major ways. 

I caught up with five millennials who completed their undergraduate studies between late 2007 and 2009 and managed to navigate the last economic downturn. I wanted to learn how they were impacted, from layoffs and tightening budgets to career pivots, and what skills they developed that were most important for staying afloat. Each had a unique experience that affected their approach to finances today. Now, as they reflect on that time, they see the hard-won lessons and share their best advice with the next generation. 

What stood out was the power of investing for the future, such as taking advantage of employee-match programs and routinely contributing to 401(k)s and Roth IRAs. The millennials I spoke with all encouraged Gen Zers to invest early in their careers. And they each had more nuggets of wisdom to hand down to us -- including how to make the most of the first few years out of college, how to talk money with employers, discuss finances with partners and build successful careers in unexpected ways. 

Here's what they shared via email. 

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Embrace career uncertainty and be flexible 

Katie Oelker, St. Paul, Minnesota

Katie Oelker worked in the auditing department of a bank after college while living with her parents, mainly to build some savings and pay off private student loans. That ultimately allowed her to afford going back to school to get her master's in education. 

Since Oelker didn't want to have a career in banking or auditing, she always took advantage of different learning opportunities, like training sessions or conferences, that were offered through her job. "If you don't like what you're doing post-graduation or even if you do, there are always educational opportunities to pursue that can help you further your career down the line," she told me by email. 

That career-building focus came in handy when she decided to pivot once again, this time to become a certified Business Education instructor. After teaching courses ranging from personal finance to marketing at two different high schools, she now runs her own business as a freelance writer and money coach. Having flexibility in her vision allowed her to navigate the recessionary job market and explore new industries.

"I've never been afraid to open new doors and try new things when it comes to career and educational opportunities, and it has paid off," she said. 


Talk about money with your partner, even if it's hard

Jared and Katie Pogue, Atlanta, Georgia

Before getting married, Jared and Katie Pogue learned that they needed to find productive ways to talk about money, especially how to afford building a family. The two had radically different outlooks on financial planning, which caused anxiety. Katie said she had many long-term goals, while Jared described his approach as "ignorant optimism."

They developed a routine to talk about money. They set a time limit for one day a week and slowly worked through their finances. They were eventually able to align their goals, which helped them make big financial decisions, including how to finance a house, when to have children and if they should go back to school. They came up with a division of labor, with Jared taking care of the daily and monthly payments, and Katie overseeing more long-term planning. Neither one could do their part alone.

"Once we started making tangible progress and got on the same page, our financial conversations were much more fruitful," said Jared. 


Negotiate for more, despite your doubts

Sara Gifford, Hyattsville, Maryland

Sara Gifford's first full-time job out of college wasn't her ideal choice. But with the tightening labor market, she felt compelled to accept an offer from the company she had interned with. 

"I settled for a job where I was expected to work 60-plus hours a week for laughably low pay, and I didn't negotiate my salary or benefits because I felt the employer held all the power," she said. Accepting such low compensation at her first job made it harder to move her salary benchmark forward in future negotiations.

Though recessions put more pressure on workers to avoid asking for higher pay, Gifford said that shouldn't discourage you from negotiating other benefits, such as commuting stipends, paid vacation and flexible or remote working hours. If the employer's not agreeable to any perks, it might be a sign to keep looking. "If the company pulls the offer, that's such a red flag."

Though she regrets not asking for better pay, she's proud that she took advantage of opportunities to network and learn new skills. It all came in handy when she decided to leave and build her career. Today Gifford runs her own marketing strategy company.


Identify your money priorities 

Adam Eisenberg, Huntington Woods, Michigan

Adam Eisenberg is still working at the company that offered him his first job in sales logistics. After college, he got his money goals in order, which for him meant immediately prioritizing payments toward his student loans -- instead of moving out of his parents' house. 

"I put my commission checks toward paying off my debt. It took four years to do it, and the first three I was living at my parents house, but it was worth it." While everyone's priorities are different, identifying them early on can help you better decide where your money should go.

In fact, Eisenberg originally had a second job offer he was considering, and took a similar approach when comparing his options -- he prioritized what mattered most to him. A higher commission rate, he decided, would ultimately be more beneficial for him, even if the base salary was lower. Another appealing component was the company's potential for growth. 

Eisenberg said that those entering the job market should expand beyond their normal job research to "make sure the foundation is there for future success." 


Budgets can be your calm in the storm

Jonathan Schrull, Indianapolis, Indiana

At the end of 2008, Jonathan Schrull was laid off from his second job after graduating. He was unemployed for six months before securing a new job and felt as though he had to put off beginning his long-term career and delay savings and investing. That, according to him, cost "a lot of money in the long run." 

Looking back, he found that maintaining a budget helped alleviate some of the stress. "Seeing the figures in front of me made the situation more tangible and easy to understand," he said. Having a way to track his spending, even without any income, helped him find new opportunities to reduce his expenses. Looking at his whole financial picture, not just income, was important, because "the numbers don't lie."