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