The Generation Shaped By Layoffs

For young people, layoffs are now part of the fabric of working life. It’s taking a deep toll on their psyches and careers.

Illustration: Rose Wong

Jayme Brown always knew she wanted to teach; her mother and grandfather were both teachers and she knew she was good with kids. But when she got to San Francisco in 2013 for an unpaid internship tutoring at a nonprofit, she needed to make money to live in an expensive city and also pay off her student loans. Brown got a job folding clothes at a secondhand clothing startup and was eventually promoted to her first full-time, salaried job as a customer service representative. Brown had health insurance for the first time, ate her meals at the office, and hung out with her coworkers on the weekends. She liked her work; she said it “rooted” her. But less than nine months later the company was acquired by eBay and Brown got an email on a Sunday night for a 9 a.m. Monday meeting. At 23 years old, Brown experienced her first layoff along with some 200 other employees. It wouldn’t be her last.

Brown said she felt like her “future in the city had evaporated.” She bounced around marketing jobs at Silicon Valley startups before finding a marketing job at a museum. In 2018, Brown was laid off from the museum. By then she had seen so many friends go through layoffs she had come to understand it was just the nature of what post-Recession working life was like.

“My relationship with my work is one of mistrust,” she said. “I have very little trust for the system and for people running systems.”

Layoffs also shaped her understanding of what it means to have a career in the 21st century. Brown had five different jobs in less than seven years and two layoffs — and she still hadn’t come any closer to the work she had wanted to do as a teacher. She says she never really considered it before, given the mountain of student debt she owes and the high rental prices in San Francisco. Only now, during the pandemic, is Brown taking the time to rethink her priorities.

Now 28, Brown is part of a group that spent the first years of their working lives in a time of unprecedented economic precarity. In 12 years, millennials have gone through two recessions, with the current one nearing Great Depression-levels of unemployment. Getting laid off is just one part of that equation, but it’s an experience that can feel shocking until — even worse — it becomes mundane.

Most of the people I spoke to for this piece reiterated this same feeling: They felt an acute lack of agency in the direction of their careers.

“The story here is not just that it’s a bad recession and it’s hitting young people more,” as Gray Kimbrough, an economist at American University told The Washington Post, “but it’s hitting people who have already been hit.”

It’s not necessarily clear if younger generations are actually facing more layoffs early in their careers than older generations. The first 10 years of all workers’ careers is almost always the most unstable, as Till von Wachter, an economist at UCLA, explained in an interview. It’s also difficult to distinguish whether job switching is the result of a layoff, getting pushed out, or moving to a better position. But, “job instability goes up for people graduating in a recession,” he said. “Some of that is likely to be layoffs, some of that might be beneficial job moves — and both of them might be occurring for the same worker at same time.”

Whether it’s happening to themselves, their peers, or their parents, coming of age sandwiched between two recessions has meant that layoffs have become part of the fabric of the millennial experience. Last week, the Washington Post termed this cohort “the unluckiest generation in U.S. history.

Younger generations are getting particularly hard hit right now in this new recession. As the Post calculated, millennial employment dropped by 16% in the last two months, while 12% and 13% of Gen X and baby boomers lost their jobs. Generation Z was also pummeled, looking for jobs as many are losing them, putting Gen Z on a similar footing as millennials who graduated into a similar situation more than 10 years before.

The generation is also the most diverse in history, meaning that racial inequities are especially concentrated among millennials. Black and Hispanic millennials have less wealth and less money for emergency expenses, and black millennials have more student debt than their white counterparts. When it comes to this current recession, Hispanic millennials were particularly hard hit with job losses in March, and Black Americans are not only dying at a grotesquely disparate rate from Covid-19 — more than half of Black adults have lost their jobs.

Marie Solis, a 26-year-old reporter, is one of those people who lost their job in this recession. She was laid off in mid-May from VICE, where we were former co-workers; I was laid off alongside her. For me, it was my first “official” layoff, but it was Solis’s second in three years. As Solis put it, “my career has been shaped by being laid off.”

“It was jarring to realize my job was actually at the whim of executives and algorithms and advertisers,” she said of her first layoff in 2017 from a staff writing job. But Solis quickly learned, like Brown, how much of her working life had little to do with the quality of her actual work. Most of the people I spoke to for this piece reiterated this same feeling: They felt an acute lack of agency in the direction of their careers. Rather than pursuing a certain field, they felt shuffled from job to unemployment to job, taking whatever was available, shaped by economic and structural forces beyond their control.

This sentiment isn’t unique; millennials have long had a widespread distrust in systems. According to a 2016 Economic Innovation Group survey, for people between the ages of 18 and 34, confidence in corporate America is at a low 20%, Silicon Valley at 27%, and banks at 27%. “These larger structural factors affect one’s life outcomes,” said Vladimir Medenica, professor at University of Delaware. “You can do everything right and not be where you want to be at the end of it. I think a lot of millennials are realizing that.”

While their first layoffs felt devastating, Solis and Brown eventually came to understand they weren’t the same as their jobs — a revelation for any young worker. But “even if getting laid off doesn’t say anything about you or your ability,” Solis added, “people get really worn down.”

And it’s not just the initial shock. Getting laid off has negative long-term material effects, especially if it happens to you during a recession. One study found workers laid off during recessions see around a 19% decline in earnings over the next 25 years. Middle-aged workers who were laid off in the 1981 recession were also found to have a shorter life expectancy. Getting laid off means you’re also more likely to lose your job again, given you’ve already experienced career interruptions and are likely to have less work experience.

Brown currently works as a digital marketing specialist, and even though she has many more years of experience under her belt, she still feels like eventually getting laid off again is an inevitability. “Even right now, when I’ve never been more confident in what I do, it feels like a waiting game.”

The larger picture for Solis and Brown’s cohort is grim. The average millennial has experienced slower economic growth entering the workforce than any previous generation. While employment eventually recovered for millennials since the Great Recession, earnings did not: According to a 2019 Census Bureau working paper, millennials lost more earnings — 13% between 2005 and 2017 — than older generations. Kimbrough said over email that this current recession will now extend the slow economic growth to younger millennials as well.

What this means in real financial terms is that millennials have fallen further and further behind their predecessors. They own just 3.2% of the nation’s wealth and a staggering net zero percent of real estate wealth. A quarter of millennial families have negative net worth and in recent years, more and more young adults are living with their parents. And this is before the current pandemic.

The current economic environment can be a place where it’s impossible to hold a job — forget a career. “It feels very hard to decide one day that I have XYZ skills, I’m a member of Busytown and I’m going to get the job,” said Gabby Noone, a 26-year-old author and copywriter. “I wish it could be that way.”

Noone has been laid off twice in three years: Once at a media company when she was 23, and the second time just this February after she tried to pivot to what she thought would be a steady gig in copywriting and advertising for an e-commerce startup. “Work is something I want to make my best effort at, but it just feels like at the end of the day, work is out of your control,” Noone said. “I can’t really envision my life in 10 years. The idea of having a lifetime plan seems pointless.”

“Even if getting laid off doesn’t say anything about you or your ability, people get really worn down.”

According to a 2019 New America survey, most millennials still believe they’ll have a better living standard than their parents, although it remains to be seen if those attitudes will hold after this current crisis. Brown said her experience of switching jobs and enduring multiple layoffs is “almost foreign” to her parents. Her mother was a teacher for over 30 years and recently retired, with a pension and health care. “I have no illusion I’ll end up like that,” Brown said. “If I could do what my mom did for a fraction of the time I’d be really happy.”

“When I reflect back on what shaped my career, the student debt crisis is the first thing,” Brown said. “Leaving college during that moment meant I never even saw teaching or working with kids as a viable career path. I was like, I need to make money and I need to make it soon.”

My own recent layoff also wasn’t my first experience of ownership whims beyond my control. In 2018, when I was a 25-year-old staff writer at Gizmodo Media Group, it became clear that layoffs were coming to our company. Our union negotiated generous voluntary buyout packages, one of which I took, but “choice” is a strong word when describing walking out of a burning building. It took me almost two years to find another job this year. Three months later, I was laid off.

Like the people I interviewed, layoffs — and the labor organizing work around them — allowed me to acutely understand over time that my career wasn’t shaped by the quality of my work, but rather the quality of the systems that we lived under. But knowing something to be true is a poor balm; comforting and being comforted by new coworkers I’ve grown to care for over and over again is a ritual that can feel eye-opening, until it doesn’t. Yet even still, most of my own “career growth” has come from these moments outside of traditional work systems, learning from the people who have flowed in and out of untenable work situations.

As Medenica, the University of Delaware professor put it, at the end of the day, millennials want the same things their parents did — a traditional, stable career that allows them to support themselves and their families. “From that perspective I don’t think much has changed,” he said. “What’s changed is the accessibility of achieving that goal.”

For myself, I’m back in the familiar space of freelancing, which affords few benefits and little security. I’m working on this very piece while sick because I’ve learned that assignments can dry up and because I no longer have paid sick leave. At this point, the idea of getting another job anytime soon seems fantastical. Noone, perhaps, summed up the feeling best.

“I’m always trying to live a little below my means because I’m very cautious about the next period of no work,” Noone said. “It feels like any time I have a job, or a job with benefits, it’s something to savor because it’s a luxury to me. I live with the assumption that’s not guaranteed to me.”

Freelance writer based in Brooklyn.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store