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A Generation Burned by the GFC

Between 2007 and 2010, approximately 28 million people graduated tertiary education in the US, UK and the European Union. I have come to call these 28 million people, who graduated into the worst job market since the great depression ‘GFC Graduates.’

by Jonathan O’Byrne

4 years ago

‘We’d love to hire you. You are a perfect fit for the role. But the bank has just frozen hiring worldwide and there are thousands of people about to be displaced’.

In a few short sentences, the voice on the other end of the phone informed me that my guaranteed graduate job at one of the world’s largest banks wasn’t going to happen.

I graduated from university in London in 2008 with a first-class honours degree only to enter one of the biggest financial disasters the world had ever seen. Beneath its glass facades, the city of London was silently on fire. In a few months’ time, Lehman Brothers would collapse and I would hear stories of formerly highly-paid employees emptying vending machines to clear the remaining credit off their staff cards. The global financial crisis (GFC) had closed virtually every graduate program in London, making an entire year of graduates practically unemployable.

I was one of the lucky ones. I had several job offers, the best of which offered to pay me 30 percent less than I had been earning year before while working part-time as a student. I can still remember an interview with L’Oréal where I was verbally offered a position on their public relations team if I would work for them for free for a year. I didn’t accept either.

A newspaper article at the time claimed that people who graduated in a recession would earn an average of 20 percent less over their lifetimes than people who didn’t. There was nothing that could have infuriated me more than the inference that for the rest of my life I would be worth 20 percent less than everybody else.

Once people have established a value for themselves in the workplace, it’s very uncommon for people to accept less than that.

I tell this story because I was not alone. Between 2007 and 2010, approximately 8 million people graduated tertiary education in the US, 1.2 million people in the UK and 18 million people across the rest of the European Union. I have come to call these 28 million people who graduated into the worst job market since the great depression ‘GFC Graduates.’

A lot has been written about millennials but Not a lot has been written about this sub-set of Generation Y, but their struggle for employment immediately after a coddled university experience produced a ‘sink or swim’ micro-generation. They are a group of people with a distrust of big business and big institutions and who have had to fight tooth and nail for everything they have. They are a group of people who were acutely mis-sold the university dream.

To be clear, graduates weren’t the only people affected personally by the GFC. In the U.K. total unemployment hit 8.5 percent during the GFC, with youth unemployment hitting 18 percent. Meanwhile, unemployment in the U.S. hit a staggering 10 percent of the working population. This environment has created another very interesting group of people: seasoned professionals with experience and value who were told in no uncertain terms that they were surplus to requirements.

Those that remained, or perhaps I should say survived, in corporate employment through the GFC underwent an equally brutal experience. It was a time to shut up, do what you were told and keep your numbers up.

Some of the bankers I knew at the time would lament their restricted options of employment as, ‘Shanghai, Mumbai, Dubai or Good-Bye.’

As was the case with me, it is very unpalatable for people to accept a step backwards. The GFC Graduates and the displaced professionals became creative in a bid to maintain their market value. During the financial crisis, traditional employment became riskier than it had ever been and the idea of becoming a freelancer or an entrepreneur and controlling their own destiny less so. Driven by loss of trust in large faceless entities, these people could see their naivety and how they had falsely assumed they were in stable employment. The idea of being employed by themselves and in control of their own risks seemed far less scary than it had ever been in the past.

Many of these graduates and professionals switched into fight or flight mode. After the industries that seemed invincible faltered, guaranteed jobs vanished and good people were told they were no longer valuable in the workplace. The workforce decided to take its destiny into its own hands. In my eyes, the GFC was a catalyst for the current explosion in entrepreneurship.

As I write this blog post, we are thirteen years on from the global financial crisis and in an entirely new and unprecedented period of global disruption due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Those GFC Graduates are now in their mid-thirties. They are in positions of power and authority in their own businesses, within large organisations and in some cases even high ranking positions in Government. 

With that responsibility, our Gen Y, GFC Graduates are now making decisions about where and how they locate their teams in a manner that represents their values moulded by their experiences during the GFC. They look for authenticity and a connection they understand that engagement and treating people like people not a commodity is worth its weight in gold.

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