At the end of 2000 it was official: It was the longest economic expansion in United States history. The markets were at record highs, unemployment at a record low. Inflation was not even on the radar. It was, some said, a "new" economy - permanently buoyant. Recession, that dreaded state in which all previous expansions had ended, was a relic of a bygone time.
Like so many of my peers - young, well-educated business professionals - I was riding the boom. There were long hours at the office, rushing to close deals, get more clients, drive revenues, add value. There was the investing and the swapping of stories with friends about how much our stock portfolios had increased. There was the money - like playing a game of leapfrog with our annual salaries. There was the buying - Joe had a new speedboat, Jill a new house. There was the frenzy. This was America.
In 2001 things started to unravel. The first sign was the stock market. Over the course of several months it lost more than a quarter of its value. The hiring stopped. The layoffs started. By the middle of the year it was obvious to all that the unthinkable had occurred. A recession was upon us.
Like so many of my peers, I ended up as a statistic on the unemployment rolls. Now there were long days filled with classified ads, résumés, and wasted time in front of the television. We felt a lack of purpose. Conditioned from kindergarten through MBAs to pursue wealth, we couldn't help seeing unemployment as failure and our present state as aimless.
It was around this time that I recalled something I'd learned in school, a theory that recessions are, in a sense, good - a necessary remedy for an economy that has gotten out of touch with its fundamental sense of value. In his book "A Short History of Financial Euphoria" (1990), John Kenneth Galbraith explains it well. He notes that during financial booms, a frenzy for quick material gain takes over the collective psyche. The result: Economic resources are allocated recklessly. A readjustment becomes necessary. The recession is a time for the economy to redirect its resources, learn its lessons, and move on.
I wondered if this idea of a recession as a cure could apply to individuals as well as to the economy. I tried looking at my own situation from this point of view, and I realized something. While my bank account had been fulfilled by how I'd been living my life before the recession, my deeper needs had not. I decided that, like the economy, I needed to use the recession's downtime to redirect my own resources.
I realized that I hadn't enjoyed what I'd been doing for a living. I'd been caught up in a race, equating the size of my paycheck with the impact I was having on the world. Coming out from under that worldview, I was drawn to pursuits that felt more authentic. I got involved in volunteer work. I was led back to interests I'd had when I was younger. I rediscovered an almost-forgotten passion for writing and pursued it. I wrote a novel, adapted it into a screenplay, and started looking for a publisher. I wrote articles and sold one to a magazine. I had found, I decided, a new career.
Sometime during all of this the recession ended. The economy is now growing again - growth made possible by the recession. For myself the story is the same.
Though my financial future doesn't seem as secure as it had in my previous career, I'm confident that I'm now on a better path, thanks to a recession that afforded me the opportunity to reevaluate my life, redirect my resources, and once again begin to grow.