The Great Recession and the Class of '09

They entered the workplace during after the crash, and that's made a lasting impact on their lives and careers.
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April 17, 2018

Helin Gai ’09 ate the most memorable burger of his life at West Union’s Loop Pizza Grill on September 14, 2008.

The economics and math double-major was just starting his senior year and had already secured an offer for a great job after graduation. The foreseeable future seemed assured as he settled in to enjoy a warm Sunday afternoon on campus.

Wall Street wasn’t on his radar before college. But by the end of his sophomore year, he had discovered an aptitude and love for the mathematical problem-solving of financial services. By his junior year, he decided to pursue a job in finance. He had taken, first, a summer internship and, then, earned a full-time job offer with investment bank Lehman Brothers in New York that was slated to start in 2009.

“At that age, you tend to think of the world as your oyster,” says Gai now. “At the time, nothing seemed out of reach.”

That is, until he got halfway through that burger.

On the overhead television that afternoon was breaking news that sucker-punched him into an entirely different future. Lehman Brothers was declaring bankruptcy and going out of business. At the same time, another venerable investment bank, Merrill Lynch, was selling itself to avoid Lehman Brothers’ fate. A financial crisis that had been quietly unfolding for years suddenly appeared bottomless and breakneck as the rot of bad debt spread to banks, insurers, and mortgage companies.

No one anywhere knew what was happening. Not in Washington, not in New York, and most definitely not in The Loop Pizza Grill.

One certainty was that Gai was officially, and abruptly, out of a job.

By the time the dust settled, the global economy was in its worst condition since the Great Depression. That 2008 collapse was followed by the Great Recession— millions of manufacturing jobs were gone, automation and technology were displacing millions more across multiple fields, and the career plans many in the Class of 2009 had worked so hard to realize vanished.

“When they entered college in 2005, the economy was going very well, unemployment was low. Most people were getting jobs,” says Ryan C. McDevitt, associate professor of economics at the Fuqua School of Business. “By 2009, the bottom had completely fallen out of that. The unemployment rate went to a twenty-six-year high, there were more than six job seekers for every job opening, and hiring for new college grads dropped 35 to 40 percent.”

What had started off as a challenging but surmountable career trajectory had turned into something else entirely for the Class of 2009. Those graduates suddenly faced a world that would test not only their professional skills but also their coping and survival skills.

“There were students for whom it was a momentary shock, and they adjusted on the fly,” says William Wright-Swadel, director of career services at Duke, who started the job in August of 2008, right before the crash. “The kids for whom it was a catastrophic event are those who believed that they did everything right. Now none of the strategies they bought into worked.”

That massive shift in the employment picture in such a drastically short period—and the broader macroeconomic malaise that resulted—produced a deep-seated worry in graduates. It wasn’t just jobs at stake: Self-image and sense of worth began to entangle with the economic challenges of the time, according to McDevitt, who entered graduate school in 2005 and graduated into the same tough job market in 2010. “Initially, you put the blame on yourself. You start thinking that you’re falling short, that you didn’t prepare the right way, or that you didn’t live up to expectations.”

There hasn’t been enough time to collect and assess the longterm economic data that will measure the true economic effect of the recession on the Class of 2009. But economic indicators aren’t the only way to measure the recession’s impact. What Gai, along with the rest of his class, didn’t know then was that the economic collapse that started their senior year and became the Great Recession would ripple throughout their lives, shaping their careers, finances, and relationships in ways subtle and obvious, and forcing them to radically reassess the values and assumptions on which they had based their futures.

“This felt from the get-go that it was going to be very serious because it was pervasive,” says Wright-Swadel. “What students were facing was not where do I go instead, but much more a case of how do I deal with this?”

While it officially lasted from December 2007 to June 2009 based on successive quarterly declines in Gross Domestic Product, the Great Recession’s impact on 2009 graduates is still manifesting itself. Like a natural disaster, it affected everyone in its path but not all in the same way.

While the start of the Great Recession had immediate repercussions for Gai, for others the recession acted less like a volcanic eruption and more like a sustained drought.

Tyla Fowler ’09 had come to Duke, like Gai, without a distinct career path in mind, but over the course of her studies she found she wanted to do work involving girls’ education in Africa. After a period of exploration, she majored in international comparative studies and earned a certificate in global health. She became a Baldwin Scholar and was involved with the WISER program, which works with girls in Kenya “to transcend poverty, HIV/AIDS, and gender-based violence.” She planned to continue that work after graduating by landing a job in the nonprofit world.

Fowler wasn’t greatly concerned about the economic collapse. It felt distant, and a solid self-confidence buffered her against worry.

“I still thought maybe the rules didn’t apply to me,” says Fowler. “I thought: I am so special, I am never going to be without, even though I only have a very, very vague idea of what I want to do.”

By graduation, she didn’t have a job but was optimistic. Fowler moved to New York and lived with a boyfriend who did have a job. She had interned at three nonprofits the summer before and knew that the city was where she wanted to be. She still felt certain in her ability to find a job. However, that confidence soon met with the realities of a shattered economy, and Fowler started looking inward for answers.

“I’ve always been told that you can do and be whatever you want to do and be,” she says. “I never stopped to consider that there might not be room for me in that market.”

Yet, there were far too many qualified people looking for far too few jobs, and she wasn’t making any headway. Weeks stretched into months. Fowler kept her options open and pursued multiple interests. She continued looking for work in the nonprofit world, but a food-focused writing class during her senior year had sparked an interest in food journalism. So she also applied for magazine writing jobs.

Both paths proved difficult. The nonprofit world saw a steep decline in donations and grants after the economic collapse, and media companies, particularly print, had their budgets slashed because of a plunge in readership and advertising revenue. She began taking full-time temporary jobs without benefits and writing for free as an editorial assistant for various food publications. She created a personal blog to keep her writing current.

The fruitless searching began taking an emotional toll. Fowler had grown up in a family with economic challenges, and she had hoped her future would be less insecure. It didn’t seem to be turning out that way.

“My parents filed for bankruptcy twice in my lifetime, and I grew up with a scarcity mentality,” says Fowler. “It was a big reality check to realize that the scarcity I had pushed against by going to Duke was still present in the world.”

Finally, she found a temporary job as a communications associate at a nonprofit, and she was told it would eventually turn into a permanent position. It didn’t.

“They finally turned it into a real job, and after I had been doing it brilliantly for a year, they hired a girl who had a master’s degree and offered her so much less than I would have accepted for that job,” Fowler says.

She took a series of unpaid internships at magazines in the hopes of landing a paying job. Nothing stuck. Fowler was sinking into a cycle of underemployment and calling many of her assumptions about life into question.

Meanwhile, Aaron Glover ’09 was in New York, too. He was a fourth-year senior when the economy tanked. He had come to Duke from Georgia and spent five years on the wrestling team.

After attending a Black Wall Street event hosted by Kappa Alpha Psi in Durham, Glover knew early on that he wanted to work on Wall Street. But a cloud of uncertainty hovered over him as the economy tanked.

“I didn’t know how to weigh the gravity of that,” says Glover. “You knew that people weren’t going to be hiring very much, certain places weren’t going to be in existence.”

He’d spent two summers interning at JP Morgan before the collapse and had been offered a full-time position. As economic conditions worsened and the job market began constricting, he realized jobs were far from guaranteed, especially as his classmates started to see offers disappear or not materialize.

“The hard part was competing in a funnel that started to close,” says Glover. “Even the invite to return as an intern didn’t feel as certain as it once did.”

The stark employment situation forced many of his classmates to pivot to more immediate, short-term solutions. “It was people who, the majority of the time, were able to execute plan A and now have to execute plan B or C,” says Glover. “The fact that it was plan C made it short term, because they had to find what the new plan A was in the new environment.”

Some of his peers enrolled in business school as a way of postponing entrance into the brutal job market, but Glover resolved to push through with the opportunity that was in front of him.

“The pressure for me was within the internship,” he says. “It was making sure I nailed the opportunity.”

Glover stuck to his plan. He had always had a clear vision of what he wanted to do and redoubled his efforts to stay on course. JP Morgan weathered the initial economic collapse of late 2008 and, after several months of uncertainty, the investment bank hired him.

For Gai, playing catch-up after losing his job offer at Lehman Brothers, the funnel to Wall Street seemed closed. He turned to Duke’s career services and talked daily to Emma Rasiel, professor of the practice of economics, for guidance. For Rasiel, Gai’s situation was becoming commonplace.

“There was enormous uncertainty among dozens of undergrads who had summer internships, got full-time offers, and now suddenly the firm withdraws the full-time offer,” says Rasiel. “The job prospects for people who were in finance and people who were looking at jobs in finance were really, really sour.”

Across campus, professors, counselors, and career-services staff helped students expand their possibilities by vigorously tapping the alumni network for job leads and connections, encouraging students to think outside of their original plans and to accept different outcomes. The university also created the Master’s of Management Studies program at the Fuqua School in 2009. It gave liberal-arts students additional educational opportunities, a chance to enhance their résumés, and frankly, a little time. In its first year, 50 percent of the students enrolled in the program were from Duke, according to Wright-Swadel. Rasiel, along with counselors in career services, urged Gai to take the time to reassess his values and career goals. They emphasized looking at what was most meaningful to him and what parts of the work were most rewarding, and to look for opportunities that matched his principles. He immediately set to work expanding his “pool of opportunities,” he says. “It became a matter of reaching out to all of the resources on campus and figuring out what they thought might be suitable for me,” says Gai, “and talking to all of these people to get a sense of what opportunities they [were] seeing out there.”

Gai knew he enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of finance and that he wanted to work in a friendly, supportive work environment. Rasiel connected him with a new investment firm in Charlotte called Global Endowment Management. The firm was small compared to the major Wall Street banks and far from the prestige lent by New York. But Gai felt an instant kinship with the staff of around twenty during his interview process.

“I had the opportunity to meet with every person at the company, and there wasn’t a single person I didn’t feel comfortable talking to,” says Gai. “That was what drove my decision to join them.”

He joined the firm in July 2009 as an investment analyst and immediately saw the advantages. Far removed from the uncertainty the major banks were still undergoing and deeply enmeshed in the company’s mission, Gai found himself growing in a way he never would had he been pigeonholed into a specific role at a massive company.

“I could see how a company is built from the ground,” says Gai. “The great thing about joining this small company [was] that it actually has very broad coverage in terms of projects. As a young analyst, I got to work on pretty much everything.”

For Fowler, things started shifting when she also found a job that required her to multitask across a wide range of responsibilities. In 2011, she landed a job with Gabrielle Hamilton, a best-selling author and owner of the acclaimed Prune restaurant in New York. There, as Hamilton’s personal assistant and the restaurant’s manager, Fowler handled varied responsibilities.

“It was the biggest learning curve of my life,” says Fowler. “I think that I grew more in that four years probably than I had the whole time I was at Duke.”

She worked with Chef Hamilton for four years but struck out on her own in 2015. This time, she turned inward and spent two and a half years on an emotional and spiritual pilgrimage of self-examination.

She supported herself with “a lot of credit-card debt.” In the end, she discovered her true calling. She cohosts a podcast, “A Year Ago Today,” and is a life coach who helps others unlock their creative potential, a path that feels true to her in way that nothing else has.

“I think that the recession was an incredible gift for me, because had the economy been better and had I landed a job right away, my path would have been totally different, and I am grateful for what it was,” says Fowler. “I would have gotten to where I am anyway. But maybe it would have taken me longer or been more traumatic.”

Settled in on Wall Street, Glover is working his way up at JP Morgan. Although he has a secure position with the bank and has become an executive director in equity sales, he finds that the recession is still affecting his work. “It shaped my approach to my job. It made me more competitive,” says Glover. “It made me appreciate the seat that I had, and that’s never gone away.”

Gai also found an appreciation for his work stemming from the challenges of the recession. The security of a small firm and the immersion in business fundamentals shaped his decisions in novel ways. From that, he’s created an opportunity that melds his interests with his skills.

“It was probably one of the best things that happened to me,” says Gai. “I got to discover what I truly wanted to do within financial services and outside of financial services.”

After working in Charlotte for nearly two years, he moved to New York for a three-year stint with another securities firm. In 2013, he cofounded Stockfuse, a virtual stock-trading game that helps companies find and recruit talent outside the traditional Ivy League business schools.

The Class of 2009 experienced an upheaval in the country’s social and economic fabric not seen in decades, and it made them more introspective, more values-driven, more competitive than they would have imagined themselves ever becoming. Large swathes of their generation may never recover the promise of pre-recession America. But for some, the Great Recession shifted the measures with which they gauge their lives and spurred them into a deeper awareness of their place in the world.

For Gai, the realizations and changes that started that September afternoon over a simple burger are still unfolding.

“The experience of 2009 taught me that things can unravel, for lack of a better word, in a very rapid fashion,” he says. “It’s much better to be super-flexible and be very open-minded about other opportunities.”