Help me recession-proof my future, post-college life.
January 7, 2009 12:49 PM   Subscribe

I'm 21 years old, about to graduate college, and the recession is freaking me out. I know there's no right or wrong answer to which course my life should take, but I need help focusing on realistic skills and places to live that I should be considering.

I'm about to graduate from a major Ivy-level university with a degree in English and Political Science. I have no idea what I want to do with my life and will be dealing with ~$35k in debt, so I want to try to spend the next few years living frugally and carefully contemplating what I want to study in grad school before I make the plunge.

The problem is that I feel like all of my ideas of what my post-college life would look like have been soured by the recession. I would love virtually nothing more than to live in Brooklyn and try my hand at policy, academia, or nonprofits/social justice - but as far as the research I've done is concerned, the NYC job/rental markets are so incredibly tight it might as well be a death wish.

Recently I've tried to expand my search to other places, like Chicago, Boston, and DC, but even in these areas I feel like the cost of living stacked up against jobs I would want that actually pay something is daunting.

I've been trying to think about ways to make my predicament easier by
1 - Trying to cast a wider net geographically - looking at cheaper, faster-growing economies such as Austin, TX and parts of North Carolina for more, better-paying jobs and cheaper rents;
2 - Casting a wider net in terms of what jobs I' could apply to - but here I'm a bit clueless;
3 - Looking for skills that I could attempt to teach myself that might give me a competitive advantage. (I have some basic Spanish and HTML/CSS under my belt that could, maybe, give me a head start.)

I know this question is almost impossibly broad, but are these worthwhile strategies?

Is the premise of my fears valid - that life in a major city like New York, which is what I want more than anything, is unfeasible in this economy?

Where can I find a decent, urban-style quality of life - liberal, gay friendly, nightlife, art/music scene, public transit - with a realistic rental and job market? Is it all too much to ask?

Am I being overly pessimistic considering that I *did* go to a good school and made decent grades - or is it prudent to be this cautious?

Other factors to consider: I do *not* want to live with my parents. I'd really like to not stray any farther from the East Coast than North Carolina to to the south, Chicago to the west, or Montreal to the north. Programs abroad such as the Peace Corps, teaching English in Asia, etc interest me, but I worry that the economic crisis will just make life even harder abroad than it is here. Also I have EU citizenship and could theoretically move and work anywhere there, but again, I worry that life will be even harder there.

I'm sorry to ask so many different questions in one, but any guidance from anyone who has graduated from college and felt completely overwhelmed/demoralized by grim economic conditions would be really helpful. Trying to figure out just how bad this recession is/will be is like staring into an abyss, and it makes planning and predicting my future, and how hard things may get, very difficult. Please, feel free to share your stories, perspectives, advice on what you would do in my situation, anything at all.
posted by Muffpub to Work & Money (20 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
the NYC job/rental markets are so incredibly tight it might as well be a death wish.

There are millions of people living and working in NYC, so no, it's not a death wish or unreasonable. Save enough cash to get your foot in the door as someone's roommate in NYC and go from there. For job hunting, I think you should figure out where you want to live first, so you can plant some roots there. Unless your resume is really spectacular for some specialized position, I can't imagine a company being interested in interviewing someone who still lives across the country.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:58 PM on January 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm sorry, I should have specified that I live in the Boston metro area right now. So theoretically I could be interviewing in NYC throughout this semester.
posted by Muffpub at 1:01 PM on January 7, 2009

You may want to consider getting a lower paying job just to pay the bills while you are applying for "real" jobs, I.E., retail or waiting tables.

I understand how you feel, I have a MS, but am working retail at the moment while looking for a job in my field.
posted by at 1:05 PM on January 7, 2009

Best answer: Go to New York, struggle, live with three roommates in a crappy place in Brooklyn, drink a lot, scrape tooth and nail to get a job that'll give you some experience (if not necessarily some money), pick up pennies on the sidewalk, network, talk to everyone you know, talk to alums, ask alums for jobs, do your laundry in your bathroom sink, don't smoke a lot of weed, don't take cabs, register with a temp agency while you're searching for the right job, date around but don't move in with them until you're ready to get engaged, steal cable from your neighbor, furnish your apartment with hand-me-downs, lie to your college loan people that the payment will be there SOON, and do it like the rest of us did it. You'll be fine.

First thing, though, is decide between policy, academia, and non-profit social justice, although I have no idea what actual jobs you're thinking about in those arenas. But if that's what you want to do, then don't dick around -- do it.
posted by incessant at 1:05 PM on January 7, 2009 [14 favorites]

What incessant said. I graduated during a rough period too (the 1990 recession) but toughed it out, moved to San Francisco because thats where I wanted to be, lived life, ran out of money, worked as a bike messenger and temped to pay the rent while i took my time interviewing for something I really wanted.

After finally deciding against investment banking, I took a job in Silicon Valley. In 1991. Right at the beginning of a huge boom. I dont even want to think about all the great opportunities I would have missed out on had I not taken that first chance.

I'm sure many others here will have stories like mine.
posted by vacapinta at 1:15 PM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, I'm not freshly graduated, but I do feel a bit overwhelmed! I've been looking at different career fields and ideas due to a large pay cut at my current employer.

I've found this site helpful to get ideas of salary for different positions and locations

Balance it out against the cost of living though--I have friends in California who try to sell me on how the salaries are higher there, but the cost of living is astronomically higher to go with the slight increases in pay.

I'd encourage you to look at college towns that are a bit out of the way--you may also be able to check into a provisional teaching license, if that has any interest for you at all. Hopefully, others will have more usable advice! Hang in there though, it will all settle out, and having a degree is going to be a huge help in your search.
posted by midwestguy at 1:17 PM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

You sound like you want to me the majority of my friends. They had a rough couple of years to start, but things are working out and looking up, generally. Start interviewing now, but don't worry if nothing turns up quite yet. You'll get a job that will either be good or crappy. If it's crappy, do it for a year or two while you are looking for something better. Just make sure you are always looking for something better.
Use the hardship deferral for your loans if you have to. Make sure you have some friends around or live with friendly people or be aggressive about making new friends- New York can be very lonely with all those strangers around you.

It will suck for a while probably, but it always does and then starts getting better, maybe 2-4 years out. If it doesn't start getting better, go somewhere else!
posted by ohio at 1:19 PM on January 7, 2009

First of all, hop down to your school's financial aid office and get the full scoop on your loans. Find out when are they coming due (e.g. I had one due in full almost immediately and the rest kicked in after a 6-month grace period). Find out the interest rate, the term of repayment, and ideally, the monthly amount you'll be paying. I don't think it's possible to gauge your ability to live anywhere without this information. From there, it ought to be simple math: salary minus rent/utilities and food and loans and bills and entertainment = ... either a positive or a negative number. If you feel that your field is unstable, you'll want a higher positive number so you can save up for periods of possible unemployment.

You can check on Craigslist to get ballpark figures for rents in various places. I have a friend who pays $1500/mo to live alone in an inconvenient but not unsafe part of Brooklyn and another who pays $600 to share with two others in Queens.
posted by xo at 1:26 PM on January 7, 2009

Best answer: As a recent college grad comfortably ensconced in my dream job after a year of cross-country moves, feelings of settling, and low-grade panic, I say: don't lower your expectations - just make sure that you have back up plans.

Adopt a tiered approach. Ask yourself - What kind of jobs are ideal? What kind of jobs would you enjoy even if they aren't exactly what you want? What kind of jobs do you think you could muddle through? Do the same with where you want to live - first choice is Brooklyn, after that your favorite urban northeast areas, etc. You can draw some lines here. No jobs in Nevada. No jobs in sewage plants.

Start looking now for your ideal jobs. It's not unusual to get hired several months before starting work. Employers understand how college works, and frequently are used to working with recent college grads. For instance, I'm a research assistant in a science lab. It is absolutely understood that you apply in the winter months, hear back in the spring, and begin work sometime during the summer. Obviously this depends on the kind of jobs you're applying for, but most jobs that college grads apply to are used to dealing with college grads - it seems obvious even to say it. So they'll understand when you say you can't start until the summer.

Now, it is possible you won't get any of your ideal jobs. This was true before the economy took such a downturn - it's just especially true now. So once you've sent out your resumes to the jobs that make your cheeks flush and your heart go pitter-patter, send out another round to jobs that are in your field, that you think you could get something useful out of, or perhaps to jobs that are not in your field, but still appeal to you in some way - for instance, I have a friend who wasn't even considering teaching but signed on to Teach for America because she couldn't find anything else, and is really happy with it.

If it's getting towards May or June and you don't have a job yet, especially if you don't have any promising leads, now is the time to start scraping the bottom of the barrel. Start applying to be a waitress, a retail clerk, sign up with a temp agency. These are the types of places where you start once you're hired, so it doesn't make sense to address them before now anyway. I have friends who have had to go this route, and you know what? They get by. It's not what they want to be doing but they can make rent (most of them live in Somerville - you say you're from the Boston area so you can ballpark their rent & lifestyle) and they are happy.

Basically my advice is "apply for everything". This can be overwhelming but you say you've done well at an Ivy-level school - this leads me to think you're a persistent, hard-working, thorough person. Use those skills in your job hunt.

In conclusion - don't assume that the economy has sunk your chances at a great job and the lifestyle you're dreaming of, because it hasn't. Those opportunities may be fewer and farther between, but they're still out there. At the same time, don't take employment for granted - be prepared for rejection, to have to apply to jobs you're not too excited, and to maybe get rejected from those, too. This might be more likely than it was 12 months ago, but it was always fairly likely.

It sucks to be graduating college at a time like this, but in a weird way you (and I) are kind of lucky. Yes, we have student loans, but most of us don't have kids, we don't have mortgages, we're not worried about retiring soon, we're not tied down to one place, we have family and friends who are willing and sometimes even expecting to help us out. It's okay to feel utterly stressed out by your situation, but I think it's helpful to acknowledge that things could totally be worse.

Good luck!
posted by shaun uh at 1:57 PM on January 7, 2009 [8 favorites]

You are 21. You've finished your book learning for now. Now welcome to the rest of it. Big city? Predictability, security? Fuggetaboutit!

What incessant noted above can get even freakier (and I think s/he is dead on). One thing to remember is that regardless of how good or bad it gets... don't give up. The highs and lows of the big city can really mess with one's head.

The advice that everyone (above) gives for calculating this and that is great but the bottom line is you've got to go with your intuition, tap courage, become fearless. If you are not on a trust fund or a MacArthur Fellow already, or some equivalent, then you must have courage.

Even in ideal economic circumstances there is little you can do to be entirely secure.
posted by ezekieldas at 1:57 PM on January 7, 2009

Washington, DC offers a "decent, urban-style quality of life - liberal, gay friendly, nightlife, art/music scene, public transit - with a realistic...job market." The DC metro area is the land of nonprofits and social justice organizations. A very good public transit system, very gay friendly, a lively art/music scene, etc. Live near a Metro stop and you won't need a car.

Yes, apartments are expensive here. However, lots of entry-level folks in nonprofits and government live successfully on low salaries despite the high cost of living. Note that it's still a lot cheaper than New York. Get a roommate or two and you'll be fine, particularly if you want to live in less upscale but still safe parts of NW DC or across the river in Virginia. Most of my friends and I started out this way after we got out of college.
posted by pandanom at 1:59 PM on January 7, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'd be can and should have a plan B. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try plan A. Have you done any internships? There's also Americorps positions where you can work with nonprofits and get loans deferred/education stipend (though you are basically at a food-stamp salary).

Often, and especially for jobs hiring liberal arts degrees, the better pay doesn't come until you have experience (and/or mad technical skills of some kind). But I'd try to go into it knowing whether there are better paying advancement opportunities in the field.

When you're first out of school, the priority is not accuring new debt (credit card danger zone) and making all the minimimum payments on time! If you're concerned about debt in the long term, I'd consider looking into fields where they pay your way as a TA or such for graduate school of where or one where you can work and go to school part-time.

ps. I graduated in 2002 and moved to NYC. The job market was iffy, but I eventually found a job (and ended up having to relocate to Chicago the second place I was considering). It will work out, but do start looking for specific positions, and talking to anyone out in the real world working generally in those areas for ideas of specific positions are out there.
posted by ejaned8 at 2:13 PM on January 7, 2009

Recently I've tried to expand my search to other places, like Chicago, Boston, and DC, but even in these areas I feel like the cost of living stacked up against jobs I would want that actually pay something is daunting.

I graduated last year with no particular idea about what I wanted to do. I continued my on campus student job over the summer, and then decided to move to Chicago in August. I live in a decent apartment in a fairly safe neighborhood. One of my roommates is here doing City Year (an Americorps program), and is living on $180/week. You can make it work. I'm sure you could probably pull off the same thing in Brooklyn if you really tried.

I was very lucky and got the first job that I applied for Chicago, so I don't have a ton of job advice other than to look into temp agencies and big employers (nonprofits, universities) in the cities you are considering that might have jobs you are qualified for.

You may want to consider getting a lower paying job just to pay the bills while you are applying for "real" jobs, I.E., retail or waiting tables.
This has worked well for my friends.

Feel free to MeFi Mail me with any questions, especially about Chicago!
posted by puffin at 2:24 PM on January 7, 2009

I agree with most of what's been said above. A recession means that it may be harder to find everything you're looking for (a great job, a wonderful city, a good living situation) initially, but it does not mean that it's impossible.

If New York is where you want to be, apply to as many jobs there as you possibly can. Start now, and interview in the spring. You might find something, you might not - but right now you are in a position where you can apply to and interview for jobs in NY well ahead of time. That gives you an advantage.

If you can't find something in New York, why not stay in Boston, at least for a little while? Boston has a lot of neighborhoods and areas (Cambridge/Somerville, JP, Washington Square, etc.) where you can find very reasonably-priced apartments, and being in Boston means that you can get to NY easily if you want to continue interviewing there.
posted by aether516 at 2:36 PM on January 7, 2009

I encourage anyone who has the slightest inclination to go abroad, and some means to do so, to go abroad. So, go abroad. When the economy is better, make money; now, try to do some kind of an overseas program volunteering that covers your expenses and delays the start of your debt payments. US citizens generally lack experience in the world, and it's a shame.
posted by peter_meta_kbd at 2:51 PM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

1 - Trying to cast a wider net geographically - looking at cheaper, faster-growing economies such as Austin, TX and parts of North Carolina for more, better-paying jobs and cheaper rents;

I think this is a great idea.

I grew up in the NY metro area, so I've felt its pull--but I've also watched one friend after another scrape by very closely financially to stay there after graduating with liberal arts degrees. Moving to a college town in the south has helped me to realize that there is life outside of New York. The pace of life is slightly slower here, but I think that has more to do with everyone not being completely stressed by working all the time to get by. There are concerts, gay bars, and decent public transit here. Job are a little rough to come by, but because rent is cheap (I pay $500 a month to live alone in a huge 1 bedroom in a historic house), you could easily survive waiting tables here if you had to, and it likely wouldn't be necessary. I would really, really recommend a decent college town for a few years while you get work experience and pay off your loans. If nothing else, it will give you great perspective when and if you decide to move to NYC.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:41 PM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What incessant said. To be honest, it sounds like you're having the requisite senior-year freakout. But it's not like your interests are impractical in any way. Fields like policy and nonprofit advocacy are fairly stable.

Also: I work in the nonprofit/poitical world and graduated during a recession, so I feel you. But seriously, do not be afraid to struggle for a while. It's ok to temp or wait tables while you're doing that unpaid internship and living with five people in Brooklyn.

BTW, wonder why you say you are taking time to figure out what you want to study in grad school. It should probably be the other way around -figure out what you are interested in, and go to grad school if it's necessary.

Anyway, I have lots of specific advice I can give on working in this field, and some fellowships, etc you could apply for. Metafilter mail me if you're interested.

Also, use that alum network! It's why you're $35k in debt!
posted by lunasol at 6:27 PM on January 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Everyone who graduates from college has this sort of reckoning. Everyone I've ever met, anyway. It's not the recession, it's real life.

A recession causes a lot of trouble for a lot of people, no doubt. But "recession" is a macro concept. Think of it this way- last number I know was something like that the first three quarters of the year, we had maybe -1% growth. That means that of the $13.something trillion dollars that changed hands last year, 1% less changed hands this year. Now, over 300 million people, 1% is a lot. But it also means that 99% of all the economic activity that was happening in 2007 still happened in 2008. And a lot of that 1% was in real estate and finance.
posted by gjc at 6:44 PM on January 7, 2009

Yeah, what incessant said.

I lived in New York for a few years on very very little just a few years ago. I think some months I was making less than a thousand bucks a month. Granted, I needed very little at that time, but I did it. One way is to move in with a couple, (they take one room, you take another) you can split rent three ways then, or something like that. I lived in someone's living room on the upper west for $500 bucks a month... then with a boyfriend in a illegal sublet....there are all those crazy lofts in bushwick... there really are ways to get by in New York, and there are still jobs I'm sure if you don't have to be making a regular salary and can wing it for awhile. It's draining after time, but it sure is liberating.

I think if you really want to do New York, you should. Your twenties fly by and it's great to do it even if it's just for a summer or something.

Or maybe places like Portland, Oregon/ Asheville, NC/ maybe even New Orleans. Great places you can get by fairly cheaply, meet other young people, be artsy for awhile while you find yourself.
posted by Rocket26 at 7:33 PM on January 7, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your input. I think those of you who are diagnosing this as the typical senior year freak-out are definitely onto something, but hearing people's perspectives on what a recession is, and what that means, is really helpful too.

Let me know if you guys find any good jobs, or are hiring. :)
posted by Muffpub at 11:16 AM on January 8, 2009

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