When Olivia A. Benowitz ’09 sat down in a plastic folding chair in Harvard Yard on Commencement Day waiting to get her diploma, she felt hopeful. She expected to sit through a full program of speeches from University President Drew G. Faust, the class of 2009 Commencement Speaker Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, and her fellow graduates. Then, she’d celebrate the end of four carefree years at Harvard College.
But as soon as Faust began to speak, the arc of her day changed.
“We inhabit a new world — one of changing structures, assumptions, and values as well as changed resources. Few expect a return anytime soon to the world we had come to take for granted just a year ago,” Faust said, looking out on a packed crowd of seniors. “We graduate a class of seniors from the College today who, according to the New York Times, face the most difficult job market in decades.”
Benowitz says Faust’s words popped the bubble that she’d lived in for four years, reminding her she was about to leave Harvard’s campus and enter the real world — one without meal plans, financial aid, or advising. Faust continued her speech, calling on the graduates to fix the financial crisis that had wracked the economy starting in December 2007. But Benowitz said her words were cold comfort.
“The biggest thing I remember thinking is, how? If we’re supposed to be the ones like, saving the world, how do you expect us to go about that? I don’t know how to go about saving the world. I kind of would like someone to come and save me,” she recalls.
So Benowitz made a choice. She skipped the rest of the ceremony, packed her stuff into a car, and impulsively drove to Lynn, Mass. to adopt a Maltese-Pomeranian mix named Maisie. For the next 10 years, Maisie would follow her through interstate moves and past-due notices, surgeries and breakups, job applications and power outages. The two of them would weather the worst American financial crisis in a century, one that sucker-punched millions of college graduates.
For Benowitz and many of the other Harvard students sitting in the Yard on June 4, 2009, the financial crisis would radically change the next ten years of their lives. The class of 2009 entered Harvard as freshmen expecting to leave campus with job security provided by their Ivy League education.
But the recession challenged the class of 2009’s understanding of what it means to receive a Harvard degree. The shiny promise of soaring career paths, financial security, and public recognition draws applicants to Harvard. What happens when this post-graduate future isn’t guaranteed anymore?
Neither professors, nor parents, nor Faust could help the class of 2009 answer that question in the midst of an unprecedented and unpredictable economic climate. So they went into the world and figured it out.
The prospect of an economic disaster first occurred to Erik M. Lawler ’08 during his senior year in an MIT class on commercial real estate. Around late 2007 or early 2008 — Lawler doesn’t remember — a London bank executive spoke to the class.
“He literally painted this picture of like, the world was going to implode,” Lawler says, “We all looked around like he was nuts. Like, who is this guy? What is he talking about? At least I remember I was thinking that at the time. And then sure enough, like within a few months, the world started to fall apart.”
Rumors of the recession began quietly, first as whispers between Wall Street bankers. Lawler remembers the London bank executive telling his class, “‘I sit in my office in London, and my office overlooks a park. I look out my window, and everyone outside has no idea what’s about to happen.’”
During the summer of 2008 — even after the prominent investment bank Bear Stearns went under — Matthew D. Thomas ’09 interned at Fidelity Bank largely unaware of the crisis to come. While in retrospect the signs were clear, he thought it was a summer like any other.
“I wish I was more in tune with the world at that time, because I was right at the pulse. Everyone was shorting everyone, shorting banks, shorting — I remember particularly — Las Vegas hotels,” he says.
For a while, those trades didn’t touch Harvard. When the class of 2009 returned to campus in the fall, most students say they were thinking about finishing their four years on a high note. They had parties to attend, clubs to lead, and senior theses to write.
Though Thomas left Fidelity feeling fairly sure that banking wasn’t for him, he hadn’t settled on another plan. Still, he returned to Cambridge optimistic.
“I was playing football for my senior year and focused on senior spring, and just the college experience, and ignoring the fact that things were gonna be hard getting out of school,” he says.
And that fall before Commencement Day, Benowitz was similarly focused on enjoying her last year as a college student. “I was writing my senior thesis, I was directing a show that I really loved. I was on cloud nine. And I didn’t feel like it was going to touch me,” she says.
In fact, many students felt hopeful that fall, buoyed by the tide of national politics. Benowitz called those months “monumental,” not because of the crisis, but because of Barack Obama’s historic election on top of the excitement of senior year.
Off campus, though, economists and financial executives began to see glimpses of a crisis, especially those involved in the seemingly secure housing market.
The American housing market boomed all throughout the early 2000s, peaking in mid-2006. Believing the trend of rising prices would never end, financial analysts poured money into repackaged mortgage loans. Then, quietly, the market burst. Housing prices fell, homeowners couldn’t make their mortgage payments, and those same analysts began to panic.
This panic simmered until Sept.15, 2008, when the financial firm Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. Then the panic boiled over. Lending froze. People feared that any bank could be the next one to collapse.
“That led to banks, who stopped lending to firms and then stopped lending to each other, and then stopped lending to customers and to households, and households stopped spending because they were becoming unemployed. And because houses were falling in value, and some of those forces made the economy go sharply worse,” explains associate Economics professor Gabriel I. Chodorow-Reich ’05.
In the fall of 2008, students like Thomas may have been mostly unaware of Lehman Brothers’ collapse — and the plunging stock market that followed — but Harvard staff at the Office of Career Services were watching.
OCS Director Robin I. Mount wasn’t surprised when the economy started falling apart. She had been helping students find jobs for a long time, through financial highs and lows. She witnessed companies almost cease hiring altogether in the dot-com bust at the turn of the century, when investors dumped money into internet startups assuming they would turn a hefty profit. Many of them didn’t, and investors and companies alike suffered serious losses. As a result, they stopped hiring. Mount was ready for a similar job-search fiasco when rumours of an imminent crash loomed.
“We were panicked. We were watching the stock market crash. Because so many of the employers that we work with — Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch — they were imploding, right? Bear Stearns blew up. And so we were just like, riveted [to the news],” she remembers. “But students were kind of clueless.”
At first, the class of 2008 didn’t think the recession had much to do with them. Everyone assured them that a Harvard acceptance letter was a golden ticket, practically guaranteeing financial stability and a postgraduate job. They watched class after class of students before them graduate mostly employed.
“I went through my undergraduate experience, just feeling all like, there’s all the promise in the world, and that everything’s going to turn out so great for you. Because, ohmygod, you go to Harvard. How could that not go great?” says Winslow Carroll ’09.
The recession became real outside Cambridge well before Harvard students even registered it. By August 2008, the national employment rate climbed above 5 percent, rising more than a percentage point from the year before. The rise in unemployment did affect some students outside of their Harvard lives, however. Joseph F. Quinn ’08 remembers first realizing the impact of the recession when his dad lost his job at one of the big investment banks that went under.
“[It] literally hit home for me,” Quinn says. “And so the impression that I was getting of job prospects, and the career world, was definitely colored by that.”
Still, some seniors felt so far removed from the crash that they even made jokes about the firms filing for bankruptcy in New York — especially Lehman Brothers.
In an Adams House suite one weekend, a group of seniors threw a faux-memorial for Lehman and Bear Stearns, decking the room with gravestones in the banks’ memories. They danced, drank, and blared music, while the ghosts of bankrupt companies loomed morosely on the walls in decorative tombstones.
“We didn’t understand it was going to have a catastrophic impact on the economy. It did seem like Wall Street was melting down, but it didn’t seem like it would matter for the rest of America at that point,” says Peter N. Ganong ’09, one of the hosts of the gravestone party. “It didn’t seem like particularly impactful in terms of getting a job.”
But as Ganong and his blockmates danced among the banks’ graves, the practical effects of the crisis crept towards Cambridge. Some students began to get calls from their junior summer internship coordinators telling them they no longer had job offers. Others participated in the mass ritual of senior fall — on-campus recruiting — only to find that the number of available positions had drastically decreased. Interview spots were down by 19 percent, and job offers were even scarcer.
Dara M. Wilson ’09 remembers walking into her friend’s room in Winthrop House in the fall of 2008 to find her distraught. Wilson’s friend was a star intern at Lehman Brothers, an obvious candidate for the job offer she got at the summer’s end. Then Lehman folded.
“There was this morbid power over the whole mood of the room,” she said. “You thought you had done everything to put yourself in a position where you didn’t have to scramble to figure out what you’re going to do with the rest of your life right out of school. All of a sudden, she was in the boat with so many of us who were still figuring that out.”
Most seniors knew someone who lost or was passed over for a job offer, even if they didn’t experience it themselves. And as economic conditions spiraled, affecting more and more employers and so more and more seniors, the mood of the class turned grim. The recession no longer felt far away from Harvard’s iron gates.
“There was almost like a hush, like somebody had died, everywhere you went,” Valerie Novacek ’09 said. “People would convene in common rooms and talk about what happened, who was affected, what does it mean?”
After winter break, when students returned to campus, Mount said their parents had given them a reality check. The OCS staff may have been the only ones watching the Dow Jones index in September, but by January their office was overflowing with panicked seniors.
In a late November faculty meeting, then-Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith announced an FAS-wide hiring freeze and stringent budget cutbacks, hoping to save $10 million. He asked department heads to pause their search for roughly 100 positions, citing financial forecasters’ estimates that the University endowment would suffer as high as a 30 percent reduction. Harvard’s endowment — the largest in the world — eventually plunged by 27 percent between the fall of 2008 and 2009.
Students may not have been paying attention to the changes in FAS, but at least one administrative austerity measure did affect them. In early May, Smith announced that the school would seek to reduce the cost of undergraduate room and board by 7.5 percent. To aid that reduction, he axed hot breakfast in the upperclassmen Houses — a change that, to this day, has not been reversed.
For seniors, though, their uncertain professional futures were more urgent than breakfast.
The percentage of seniors that had jobs waiting for them when they graduated fell 5 percent from the year before, according to the Crimson’s 2009 Senior Survey. Rescinded job offers and low recruiting numbers also impacted the class — the number of seniors entering finance and consulting fell from 47 percent in 2007 to 39 percent in 2008 to 20 percent in 2009. The traditional money-making jobs that many Harvard students counted on suddenly hired less than a quarter of the graduating class.
“In thinking about Harvard students, you’d want to think that a disproportionate number compared to college graduates nationwide go into finance, and the finance sector was very hard hit by the recession,” Harvard Kennedy School professor Jason Furman said. So, for Harvard undergraduates, the recession “could be worse in scale and in composition for employment.”
Falling numbers of Wall Street-bound graduates reflected lower hiring rates, but they also reflected a campus-wide suspicion of those firms as their roles in creating the crisis itself became clear to Harvard undergraduates.
“I know that the way people talked about Wall Street in the 80s, and 90s, it seemed really appealing as an 18-year-old,” says Thomas. “But then it, as I got older, it became something I didn’t want to be associated with personally.”
In fact, in the recession’s aftermath, some economic analysts blamed Harvard itself for the crisis. In particular, Harvard Business School. In 2017, business journalist Duff McDonald published a history of the Business School titled “The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite,” taking the school to task for teaching an immoral brand of business thinking.
Yet while some among them criticized financial firms, Harvard students undoubtedly had it better than many of their peers. Kemeyawi Q. Wahpepah ’09 says she recalls returning to the Bay Area to see her hometown upended by the financial crisis.
Others felt the difference most clearly when they compared themselves to friends from high school who did not attend Ivy League colleges.
“There are a lot of my high school friends [who] did not have jobs for a long time. They struggled. A lot of them went to very low paying jobs,” Novacek says. “I mean, the Harvard name absolutely gave you a leg up.”
Loyal companies still flew representatives to campus for recruitment and students still had a vast network of alumni to rely upon. Companies may have been hiring fewer college graduates, but if there was any school they were going to hire from, there was a good chance it would be Harvard. Mount even recalls new companies recruiting on campus that year that had never come before, because they saw the recession as a chance to hire a Harvard student.
“For a lot of people, the ability to get into a place like Harvard already represents having a safety net, a social safety net, that allows you to get the education and the opportunities that it takes in order to gain enrollment into a school like that. So those things in general, they don’t just disappear,” Wilson says. “They may shrink, because everybody’s everything was shrinking. But the safety net is definitely still there.”
While the Harvard safety net didn’t vanish, it shrank to the point that some students didn’t quite land in it.
Leaving her Quincy House dorm room with packed bags and her new puppy, Benowitz began a tough 10-year post-graduation journey.
Harvard was the most stable place she’d ever lived — consistent housing, free food, engaging classes. She worked in the FAS Development Office calling donors, she rode horses, she did theater, and she fell in love with the History and Literature program.
“I kind of thought that the Harvard name would insulate me, because it had been a place of safety and stability for me the whole time I was there.” she says. “And so I don’t think it really struck me that I needed to have a backup plan, and a backup plan from my backup plan, until it was way too late.”
In the two years following her graduation from the College, Benowitz estimates she applied to more than 100 jobs. She balanced working at Trader Joe’s and Sephora with internships in her dream field — arts administration. But when the theaters where she interned wanted her to devote more time, she had to say no in order to take shifts at other companies that paid her and provided her with health insurance.
Many of Benowitz’s friends had the benefit of family support and connections. And, though thousands of college graduates — including some of her Harvard classmates — were in similarly difficult positions, she felt alone.
“It was exhausting, and I felt like a total failure, and I just felt like I couldn’t catch a break,” she says. “I also felt like for whatever reason, I was the only one struggling that hard. I don’t think that was true. But that’s the way it felt.”
But Benowitz doesn’t blame the recession for her struggles. Thomas — the football player — says the same.
On Commencement Day, Thomas says he was unemployed and unsure how to occupy the months after graduation. Then he got a call from a family friend offering him a job coaching football at his high school. Over the next several years, he worked as a teacher, played football abroad, set up tailgate tents, and moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina — where the cost of living was lower. He says he only began a stable career around 2011.
“It didn’t hit me until probably 2011, when I was working and I was applying for jobs in North Carolina. I said to myself like, ‘Oh, yeah, no wonder it was so hard to get a job, of course it was,’” he reflects.
Lawler also struggled to acquire a job for more than a year after graduation. He had toyed with the idea of joining the Navy SEALs throughout his senior year, but once he saw the state of the professional job market, he felt that entering the military was his only realistic option. For the next year, he went through the long application and clearance process required to enter the Navy, only to ultimately be rejected due to a medical issue. By then, it was 2010, the economy was slowly starting to recover, and he got a job at Morgan Stanley.
“If you look at my resume, you could almost see, well, this is where the recession happened. And this is where things started to bounce back, which is when I got a job in finance.”
The term ’08 recession is a bit misleading. In some parts of the country, the economy started to go south well before Lehman Brothers fell; in others, it lingered for years after 2008. Benowitz, Thomas, Lawler, and some of their classmates didn’t just enter the economy at a brief year-long period of crisis — they entered a dark period that lasted long past 2008.
Harvard economics professor Karen E. Dynan says the U.S. labor market remained weak for half a decade after national unemployment peaked at 10 percent in 2009. She notes that only about five percent of college graduates ended up jobless during that period, but many more were underemployed — meaning they worked fewer hours than they wanted to.
“Wage growth was really soft at the time. Job openings had plunged to about half their pre-recession level,” she says. “It was a pretty grim situation that they were looking at.”
Though not every ’09 graduate felt the impact of the recession in the same way, many of them say it changed the way they viewed success.
“I guess the silver lining through all of this is that it just, I think it caused a lot of people to sort of reevaluate their priorities — the prospect of making you know, insane money, just fresh out of college and just sacrificing two years of your health and happiness to it,” Novacek says.
“I think it forced a lot of us to really think about what would make us happy. What does fulfillment mean? What is our role in this new future as the graduating class, entering this brave new world that’s just kind of been upended? How do we make it better? How do we find our place in it?” she adds.
After Alice N. Lee ’09 didn’t get a job through on-campus recruiting, she applied on a whim for a fellowship to work in a New Orleans community center. She got the job and spent much of the next decade pursuing community development.
Lee says that while she was an undergraduate, she believed that a job in management consulting was the best — or at least, most conventional — way to develop leadership skills. In New Orleans, she discovered that wasn’t true. Had it been “any other year,” she says she might have ended up at McKinsey or Bain. Instead, she spent a decade working on mayoral campaigns and in charter schools.
Mount also witnessed a change in the mindsets of the students she was advising. Suddenly, in higher numbers than years past, people were asking OCS about job opportunities in fields outside of finance and consulting. This shift came right as the office was instituting an initiative called “turning up the volume on diverse opportunities.” The pain of the recession aside, Mount was pleased with what she was seeing.
“The second that a lot of the big for-profit companies were struggling, students… were like, ‘Well, I’ve always had a passion for fashion,’” Mount remembers. “And so we saw students really gravitating [toward] and enjoying learning about all of these other pathways.”
A widely cited 2010 paper by University of Rochester economist Lisa B. Kahn found that college graduates who entered the job market during the 1979-1980 recession had much lower wages over the long term. Dynan says Kahn’s work sheds light on the long-lasting effects of graduating amid economic turmoil.
Several ’09 graduates said that, looking back 10 years later, they have now made peace with their post-graduation prospects.
“The thing is, you go through Harvard carrying these stories of people graduating and earning $100,000 after graduation, which is ludicrous. Or maybe it’s not, but it quickly became pretty ludicrous-seeming to even think that that was a possibility. And, you know, I’m probably nowhere near that, and probably never will be. And that’s okay.” Carroll says.
Today, Mount and her team at OCS are on the lookout for trouble once again.
“We’re reading the Wall Street Journal and watching the news every night because we have a pretty volatile economy at the moment,” she says.
During interviews for this story, several graduates asked, unprompted, if this topic was borne out of fearing another recession. The U.S. is currently experiencing the longest continuous rise in stock prices — what economists call a “bull market” — in its history, now stretching 10 years since it began in March 2009. It can’t last forever, right?
Just like the bank executives and traders murmured about a housing bubble in 2007, some economists are currently reading the tea leaves — or, more accurately, the sheaves of Excel spreadsheets — and seeing the signs of another downturn.
“Relative to five or six years ago, there’s more signs of things that could go wrong,” Chowdorow-Reich speculates. He points to political uncertainty, oil prices in Saudi Arabia, and trade policy as signs of an impending recession — a recession that bond traders fear will be so significant it will require cuts to the federal interest rate.
Then again, he says, perhaps those indicators don’t really mean much for the future of the American economy.
“On the other hand, the labor market has been pretty healthy so far. So something could happen, but it‘s a pretty good bet that nothing has pushed us into a recession yet.”
It’s unclear, even to Harvard economists, when a recession will next strike. But knowing that it will happen at some point might be enough to keep seniors up at night.
If it does, Benowitz has some advice — other than, of course, adopting a dog.
“My hope for the next generation of people who go through it is that they will be better prepared, because they’ll see it coming,” she says. “I’m sure there were some people who anticipated it, but it felt, at least from my perspective, like it came out of fucking nowhere.”
If 2009 is a guide, most Harvard graduates won’t be safe from the next recession. In fact, as in 2008, some of them might even contribute to it. But whenever it arrives, Harvard students of that time will have to make choices about the jobs they want to have, the places they want to live, and the people they want to become.
Faust, in fact, predicted those choices in her 2009 commencement speech, quoting the historian Caroline Walker Bynum: “Change is what forces us to ask who we are.”
—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.
— Magazine writer Maya H. McDougall can be reached at email@example.com.