What is a recession like?

by Zen

‘m 50, so I’ve lived through several.

During the recession (s) in the early 1980’s I was a kid, and my father was in the military, so it didn’t affect us much. The peak unemployment rate in the 1981-1982 recession was actually slightly higher in most states than it was in the 2008 recession, but the recession itself was much shorter.

I graduated from college and got my first job during the 1990-1991 recession. I’d never had anything other than reliable summer jobs before so I just assumed that getting hired was always this difficult for anybody. Got a job at Enterprise Rent-A-Car making $19k ($36k today in inflation-adjuster dollars), during a period of nationwide expansion, but that turned out okay because insurance related stuff (Enterprise does most of its business in insurance replacement rentals) is functionally recession-proof since it’s one of those things people need whether the economy is good or bad, like toilet paper. So, not so bad.

I was working for an insurer at the time of the dot-com bubble burst and 9/11 recession, in 2001, but that recession was very short and very shallow. I didn’t even notice it.

Interestingly, the unemployment levels in the late 1990’s were about what they are now, but back then employees were less shy about demanding more money. The labor market was so tight you could basically walk into your boss’ office and tell them you wanted more money or you were leaving, and they’d just… cave. It didn’t last long but it was an amazing thing to see friends and family doing while it lasted.

I was working as an estimator in an auto body shop at the time of the 2008 crash. I never lost my job but the bonuses/commissions dried-up and I suspect that the company was skating on thin ice for a year or two, especially with trying to get credit. But that was also doing mostly insurance work, so more-or-less recession-proof. I invested heavily in my 401(k) plan at work while the market was down figuring that I’d either do really well or go down with the ship. I didn’t touch anything that I already had in the market and just waited it out. I knew a few people who got caught-up in the whole “no income verification” mortgage thing buying too many houses, and then lost everything and went bankrupt.

I think the main lesson I learned was not to panic when things go bad. Have a healthy emergency fund, or at least some money (or something you can easily liquidate) when things go wrong. Working in/around businesses that are largely “recession-proof” will normally help you with employment stability at the expense of missing-out on some income opportunities. Make yourself as indispensable as practical with your employer (which you should be doing whether there is a recession or not).

My father is 77. I’m mostly too young to remember, but he’s always said that the oil embargoes, stagflation, and nearly runaway inflation in the late 1970’s was worse than any of the recessions.


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