Izzy Thorn’s life course was altered by the Great Recession.
Now the campaign manager for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Thorn said she’d harbored the goal of becoming a lawyer. From 2008 to 2012, she worked as a legal assistant during and immediately following college at UNLV. But as the long-term economic impact of the recession became clearer to her and after exposure to different aspects of the law, her dreams of law school began to fade.
“So many of my friends because of the Recession ended up going to law school,” she said. “There was very much this feeling when people graduated of, ‘OK, there are no jobs, what am I going to do?’”
Considering her newfound uncertainty about law, what she viewed as an oversaturated market of future lawyers and the amount of student loan debt she would incur, she instead shifted her focus to gig work and “side hustles.”
Issues of student loan debt, education, job accessibility, wages and experience all mark the careers of Millennials, who in the wake of the Great Recession have shifted traditional checkpoints of adulthood economics, according to local and national economists.
Millennials, defined by Pew Research Center as the generation of Americans born between 1981 and 1996, are more racially diverse and more educated than their predecessors. But they are also meeting traditional markers of “success” like marriage, home ownership and parenthood later in life than earlier generations.
Economists and social scientists attribute much of that lag to Millennials being the first adult Americans to launch their careers, or try to, in an economy that underwent dramatic, and lasting, transformations as a result of the Great Recession.
The Nevada recovery
In Nevada, little research has been done to identify the specific impacts of the Great Recession on this generation.
The state’s Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, or DETR, doesn’t target Millennials with any specific job programs. Instead, they fall under the more general umbrella of adults in the agency’s programs.
But data show that Nevada workers ages 25 to 34 generally moved away from jobs in the construction industry from 1998 to 2018, instead finding work in industries like retail trade as well as accommodation and food services, said David Schmidt, chief economist with the Research & Analysis Bureau at DETR. Retail and food services typically offer lower-paying jobs than fields like construction.
A DETR analysis earlier this year found that the number of people working part-time, but who would prefer to work full-time, was still roughly twice as high in 2019 as it was before the crash. And while the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked Clark County 25th out of 355 counties in job growth, the county ranked 309th in wage growth.
Artem Gulish, a senior policy strategist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said younger workers are typically more affected by recessions because they don’t have the same level of experience in the labor market.
He said Millennials nationwide have moved away from blue-collar work, particularly as jobs in fields including manufacturing and construction disappeared during the recession. Construction work has largely rebounded across the country since then, he added.
In a spring 2016 paper titled “From to College to Career: Making Sense of the Post-Millennial Job Market,” Gulish and co-author Andrew R. Hanson argued that Millennials have been “left behind by an economy that is not creating enough jobs that pay a living wage consistent with a middle-class lifestyle, especially for those without a college degree.”
UNLV economics department chair and Professor Jeff Waddoups explained that Millennials who do not go to college may face wages that have “declined in inflation-adjusted terms over the last four decades.”
Those who do attend college face higher tuition and potentially hefty debt, he added.
“It was much easier for previous generations to find a job that paid a family-supporting wage back in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s,” he said via email. “If you can’t find a job that supports a family and a mortgage, you aren’t going (to) get married and buy a house.”
Gulish pointed out that the instability of the economy resulted in many Millennials, like Thorn’s friends, returning to school or staying in educational environments longer in order to buffer themselves against the job market.
“In general the transition from education to the workforce has taken longer now than it has taken in the past and that affects not only Millennials but also future generations,” he said.
Stephen Miller, UNLV economics professor and director of the school’s Center for Business and Economic Research, described the recession as a shock to the system but said the economic situation in Nevada has stabilized over the past several years.
Still, Nevada’s youngest workers “tend to have the highest labor force participation rates of any group, but also tend to have somewhat higher unemployment rates than others in the prime age (25-55) group,” Schmidt said.
‘Those jobs pay like $8.25 an hour’
Despite not feeling the heaviest impacts of the Great Recession, which officially lasted from December 2007 to June 2009, 24-year-old Frito-Lay employee Wesley Walker said he has seen some of his peers struggle to find work that is open to individuals of their skill level while paying a living wage.
“Either they’re not qualified for it because they need a master’s degree and they only have a high school diploma, or they’re overqualified because they have a bachelor’s degree, but those jobs pay like $8.25 an hour,” he said.
Having graduated high school in Florida and taken some college classes, Walker was at an advantage. When he sought out assistance from friends, they directed him to Nevada Partners, a nonprofit employment agency.
The organization helped him find work after he spent one month unemployed in 2016 and submitted roughly two dozen applications to no avail. At the time he was worried he’d have to move back to Florida.
He’s been carefully moving from job to job since then, seeking the best opportunities. Walker now works delivering chips to stores, shelving them and selling new company products to businesses while earning about $53,000 a year, he said.
“I’m still trying to look into what I really want to do,” he said.
Brittani Gray, director of youth programs for the community learning center at Nevada Partners, helps Millennials and younger Nevadans locate work. She believes opportunities for Millennials are growing as high-tech companies like Tesla and Amazon are attracted to Nevada.
She emphasized that with a shortage of skilled workers, she’s noticed some businesses loosening job restrictions to attract more employees. However, those jobs still require preparation and more realistic income expectations that some Millennials don’t possess, she said.
Gulish explained that though most impacts of the Great Recession might seem gone, they are still affecting Millennials working today, particularly older individuals in that age cohort.
“Though in the aggregate they’ve recovered, they’re employed and especially younger Millennials who were never impacted by it are doing quite well, there are still people who might need additional training or workforce experience,” he said.
Side gigs and the hustle
Thorn, who chose to avoid returning to school at the time, instead focused her energy on her gig and part-time work, but she pushed herself to ensure she was financially stable. She spent time as a spokesmodel and did acting work. She attended networking events and eventually obtained a job as a campaign assistant for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. In her current position, she educates kids on the organization’s mission and works on school fundraisers.
Though she’s in a stable position in terms of employment and helps other young people as chair of the Vegas Young Professionals community outreach committee these days, she hasn’t given up the gig work life entirely. Among her side jobs: She does event specialist work for GiveSmart, a fundraising and event management application for charities.
But she doesn’t see that as a bad thing.
“If anything I would say that it had a kind of positive effect,” she said of the recession. “It brought that out in me, the hustle.”
Thorn said she’s avoided purchasing a house in part because of lessons the recession taught her about finances. Instead, she’s invested her time and money in traveling and other experiences that aren’t as physically tangible. The side gigs offer a back-up plan in case the worst happens, and in that event, owning a home would be a liability.
“I could always fall back and not have that huge financial commitment,” she said. “You never know. Just as quickly as it comes, it could be taken away.”