The Silver Lining of Recession

One of my first activities every morning -- post-feeding baby, pre-coffee -- is to scan the headlines of the Wall Street Journal. Lately, it's become an exercise in masochism. Bank after bank owns up to risky investments. The stock market flirts with bear territory. Oil hits $100 a barrel. Homes are being foreclosed on. Wealthy people are even abandoning their horse farms (this actually was a Journal story). Clearly, we are in for some tough times ahead. Pundits have begun using the "R" word (recession), both in the figurative sense of feeling economic angst, but possibly in the literal sense of two consecutive quarters of declining GDP.

The business cycle is, to some degree, inevitable. Still, lay-offs and hiring freezes exact a high cost in even well-to-do and well-educated people's livelihoods and lives. One study of Stanford Business School graduates found that the class of 1988 -- who graduated right after the 1987 market crash, when the major banks weren't hiring -- not only had lower average starting salaries than the class of 1987, they were still earning less, on average, 10 years later. Likewise, many of us in the college class of 2001 wound up spending our early 20s doing far different things than we planned on in the aftermath of the Internet bust and then Sept. 11.

As we enter this new economic downturn, though, I've realized that I am actually kind of grateful for my lousy timing. After a year-long internship at USA Today, I started hunting in earnest for a full-time job in the still-dismal days of 2002. I didn't find one. Yes, I panicked. But my lack of commitments ultimately made it a lot easier to go ahead and do what I'd long wanted to do someday: move to New York and write.

Over the past five years, that move has turned out to be the right one, personally and professionally. When you have a decent thing going, the opportunity cost of taking a risk is a lot higher than when you're staring at unemployment. Even if your job isn't at risk, seeing friends being laid off can make you re-evaluate what you really want to do in life. The silver lining of a recession is that bad times nudge you to try things you otherwise wouldn't.

I was reminded of this while reading a new book called Test Drive Your Dream Job. Author Brian Kurth, founder of Vocation Vacations - a Portland, Oregon-based company which lets clients try out a dream profession for a few days with a mentor -- started his company shortly after the last economic downturn. He had wanted to start a company long before that, but he had a cushy job in the telecom business all during the 1990s. "I wanted the money. I wanted the security. I was too scared to go out on my own," he writes. Then he went to work for a dot-com start-up and, 16 months later, was laid off. Interestingly, his partner of six years was also laid off (from a different company) on the same day.

At first, this total loss of family income was terrifying. But then, "I could barely stop myself from laughing," he writes. "Finally, even I, cautious and fearful as I was, couldn't miss the message. The universe was doing what I'd been unable to do for myself: giving me the corporate boot." With no income, he simply had to figure out something else. And that something else may as well have been his own dream of starting Vocation Vacations.

Likewise, a few years ago, I interviewed Mena Trott, co-founder of the blogging software company Six Apart (whose Movable Type software, incidentally, powers the Huffington Post). She and her husband Ben also started their company after getting laid off from another internet start-up. Without the lay-off, who knows?

The reality is that humans are naturally risk averse. In Maslow's hierarchy of needs, safety and security come right after the basic needs of food and shelter. Most people find it very difficult to leave a job that pays enough to meet their immediate needs, even if they have some savings, or other resources (such as the ability to moonlight) to call upon. The uncertainty of what might happen afterwards is too great.

That's why many of us are willing to tolerate a certain level of dissatisfaction at work. A recent Conference Board survey found that fewer than 39 percent of workers younger than 25- - i.e., people who are less likely to have the mortgages and kids that keep older workers in boring jobs -- are even "satisfied" with their positions. A CareerBuilder.com survey from about a year ago found that 84% of workers aren't in their dream jobs.

Granted, finding or creating a dream job is difficult. But if you suddenly find yourself without another job, at least one barrier to attempting a career change is gone. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if some newspaper editor in the hinterlands -- more flush with cash than anyone turned out to be in 2002 -- had offered me a job. Here, six years later, I would probably not be living in New York, which is where I want to be. I probably wouldn't have gotten to do various book projects. I might even be earning less. Thanks to the 2001-2002 crunch, though, I never got to find out. And though it was tough at the time, I'm now happy for that.