A Decade Later, A Look at How the Recession Changed the Way Millennials Live, Work and Date

Playboy takes a dive into how the downturn made us more cynical, more practical and more minimalist

Alice Pasqual

Jane, who graduated college in 2009, ended up bartending in Pittsburgh for seven years, mostly due to her inability to find a job as the Great Recession was hitting. She recalls “live music on the weekends” and “peanut shells on the floor”––not an entirely bad gig––but struggling to find higher paying work. Now in her thirties, she’s finally in the line of work she intended, but paying off student loan debt.

For Peter, the only realistic job available to him upon graduating from school in the South was a job making $11 an hour in Washington, D.C. “Every month,” he says, he “had to choose between three meals a day, paying rent in my nasty shared apartment, and paying for a metro pass to work.”

Meanwhile, Kenny graduated law school on the West Coast around the same time. When the recession hit, he “left California for Kansas because of cost of living”—in case he couldn’t get a job working as a lawyer and needed to make ends meet by working in the food service industry. He’s not the only one whose strategy and mindset changed during the recession.

Nick, who went to school in Georgia, “saw the writing on that wall and decided to stick it out for a super-senior year by tacking on an extra major in the business school.” For him, the ‘08 crisis delayed his career by only a year, but “for some of my friends, that delay was longer,” he recalls.

We’re on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression. Millennials––or those born roughly between 1981 and 1996––have been deeply affected by coming of age during such a difficult time.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly which generational preferences can be attributed to the Great Recession or which trends would have emerged on their own. Millennials, currently between ages 22 and 37 are choosing to delay marriage or pass on it altogether. But our rates of cohabitation are high (around 9 million adults in the millennial age range, as of 2016), despite our hesitation to don wedding garb and make things official.

Some of us, especially wealthier and more educated people, are pushing child-rearing to a later age or eschewing the concept of parenthood completely, while others are increasingly having children outside of marriage. We’re oriented toward urban environments and hopping from company to company, or industry to industry, at far greater rates than our predecessors, looking for fulfillment outside of and within our jobs. We simply don’t buy houses––let alone columned, vaulted ceiling-ed, oversized suburban McMansions––at the rate our parents did.

Psychologically and politically, it remains a crux of my development. It made me a more cynical, pessimistic and cagey person in all things––personal, economic and political––than I might have been otherwise.

Parts of millennial culture and choices have been irrevocably colored by growing up in a time of crisis. Most researchers agree that, over the last 10 or so years, cohabitation rates have increased while marriage rates declined––but that trend was already in motion before the Great Recession started. Perhaps it’s attitudes toward becoming parents that have really been altered.

“After increasing steadily from the beginning of 2002 until late 2007, birth rates [in the U.S.] dropped sharply,” reports Pacific Standard. But after the recession hit, those declines were far more pronounced in states with high rates of unemployment, as well as among women in their early to mid-twenties. Many people credit the birth decline among young women to the knowledge that people could reasonably delay raising kids until the economy was in less tumult. And, for some couples straddling the fence, the Great Recession might have understandably had a significant delaying effect on their decision to start a family.

Sometimes, delaying having babies turned into never having babies, whether that be due to fertility issues, a realignment of priorities, or struggling to bounce back financially. Researchers at Princeton estimate, per Pacific Standard, that “women who were in their early 20s during the Great Recession are projected to have some 400,000 fewer lifetime births and an additional 1.5 percent of them will never have a birth.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s up to each individual to decide whether to have kids (and when) and, as a generation who rethinks defaults, it’s good that we deliberate on whether life choices will bring us genuine joy or just fulfill obligations.

During downturns, many people yearn for activities with potential to improve the things we can control: ourselves. Physical health improves, on average, during temporary economic depressions, according to research done by economist Christopher Ruhm. In times of financial hardship, we eat less fast food, on average, drink less alcohol, and smoke less tobacco, oddly enough—though it is worth noting that suicide rates do go up as well.

Our food choices are, by and large, healthier than past generations’, so the hubbub about millennials killing the watery beer and fast-casual dining industries is fair. But health is one of the few things we’ve had control over, and a form of health consciousness has carried on as a feature of our generation, not a bug. Now, we’re ushering in a new dawn of self-help bro-Gods, Keto diet zealots, and morning routine evangelists––trends which, although sometimes laughable, aren’t entirely bad, and give insight into what we value.

Millennials are cautious with spending––a bit less tied to material possessions and more interested in experiences, which can’t be lost or taken away. We reject shows of opulence, instead gravitating toward minimalism and simplicity.

Millennials are cautious with spending––a bit less tied to material possessions and more interested in experiences, which can’t be lost or taken away. We reject shows of opulence, instead gravitating toward minimalism and simplicity (the rise of KonMari, our organizational lord and savior, supports this, as does our growing preference for McModern houses). As a 2012 Atlantic subheading teased, “[Millennials] just don’t seem to care about owning a car. Is this a generational shift, or just a lousy economy at work?” Why not both?

Millennials have a high distrust in institutions that sets us apart from generations past. We’re losing faith in political structures ranging from our local representatives to the Supreme Court, corporations, the media, and four-year degrees at impressive rates. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing that our distrust is channeled toward large groups of powerful people. Perhaps our disdain is warranted, given the economic collapse that changed many of our trajectories.

This frustration could stem from sinking money into the degrees we earned, believing they’d help us get ahead. Employers increasingly added skill and degree requirements during the financial crisis, squeezing workers out of potential jobs. Journalist Annie Lowrey writes at The Atlantic, “Instead of asking potential workers to have an associate’s degree and three years of experience, say, they would ask applicants to have a bachelor’s degree and five years of experience.” So it’s fair that a result of this could be a loss of trust in the credentials that were supposed to guarantee work.

For some people, the Great Recession was the impetus needed to temporarily or permanently shift their careers overseas. Joe, who graduated in 2008, moved to Korea to find work soon after graduating. Since then, he’s lived in Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines.

In 2008, Sam graduated with a master’s degree, lost his optimism, and “grabbed a surprise job option moving to China to teach test prep and English.” When he returned, he spent the next few years cobbling together teaching and food service jobs to make his student loan payments on time. Eventually, Sam found a teaching job he loves, but recalls that “the constellation of choices and burdens of the late 2000s substantially limited my life options and powerfully changed my psychology.”

“Psychologically and politically, it remains a crux of my development. It made me a more cynical, pessimistic and cagey person in all things––personal, economic and political––than I might have been otherwise,” he says. “It turned me into a person far more deeply invested in practical politics––I barely volunteered a couple times for the 2008 race, and by 2012, I was a local captain, and now I'm a magisterial chair for my Democratic party.”

David, who turned 22 as the financial crisis loomed, put it clearly: “With the recession in the rearview mirror, I work my ass off and take nothing for granted now.”