What I learned from losing everything in the 2008 recession

I had always thought hard work was recession-proof – and that education, along with perseverance and a little luck, was enough to make it through hard times. I was wrong.

In late 2008, I rose to a managerial role at a leading financial services firm.

After years of doubt, I believed that I was now set up for the years ahead – but this was the year of the global recession, and my days at Lehman Brothers were numbered.

When the news that the company I worked for had declared bankruptcy came on TV monitors at our Canary Wharf office, the impact of the recession finally hit home. 

Media gathered outside the front gates and I remember sneaking out through the back exit, thinking I would land on my feet no matter what the numbers said. I was wrong.

The market crash cost me my job, threw me into financial turmoil, and threatened to crush my spirits for good.

Now another recession is upon us, forced into our lives by an unprecedented set of circumstances: the economic backlash of coronavirus. But through adversity comes opportunity, if you can ride out the storm.

The fallout from the 2008 crash was slow, but immense.

By the end of 2011, almost 2.7million people were looking for work. The quarterly unemployment rate reached 8.4%, the highest rate since 1995.

My immediate reaction to the rising unemployment rate, was of panic.

The idea of thousands of people competing against me for the next job – for any job – was daunting, as was the thought that I would have to start again.

At the time, I wanted to buy my first property, settle down and launch a writing career – but the financial crash made it clear that finding work just to survive took precedence.

I had also invested heavily in post-graduate courses, racked up debt on credit cards and student loan repayments, and those bills were overdue – which added an extra layer of stress to my mind.

Hopes to raise the deposit for a first home and convince lenders to secure a mortgage all vanished in the blink of an eye.

To make matters worse, I had just started a consultancy business on the side and secured a publishing deal, all of which meant upfront expenditure. These plans were obliterated because there was no money coming in.

It was like being forced back in time and getting smashed with a wrecking ball that destroys your self-esteem, confidence, and ability to be positive about anything.

Plans weren’t just put on hold, they were wiped out. I could only pursue these dreams if I found my financial footing again. Still, my situation was better than a lot of people – those who had nothing to fall back on, or lost their homes.

Understand that this is not your fault and you have to concentrate on your character, your mind, your future

A recession can crush your hopes and cause incredible doubt, but out of adversity comes life lessons that you cannot learn unless you have had to tough it out.

Step by step, piece by piece, the debts were repaid. Sacrifices were made.

I had to concentrate on working harder than I ever had before, standing out from the competition and taking the long view on my career. 

My CV had to be the best version it could, I worked on my interview skills and did everything I could to ensure I left as powerful an impression on recruiters as possible.

While it took about three months to find a new job, it would take a few more years to regain the financial stability I needed to even think about putting my plans back together again.

But the stress didn’t end at getting a job – when I did get back to work, I had to offer more value than before and make myself indispensable.

The last recession decimated the UK economy due to its reliance on financial services. 

According to the Council of Mortgage Lenders, gross domestic product – the market value of goods and services – fell by 1.5% in the last three months of 2008, sterling dropped to a 24-year low against the dollar and repossessions hit a 12-year high with homebuyers losing 40,000 properties.

The number of people in arrears – a preliminary indicator of likely repossession – jumped 50% over the year, with 1 in 290 borrowers having their home repossessed in the fourth quarter of that year.

It would take five years for Britain to get back to the financial size it was before the crash.

I can honestly say that after the blood, sweat, and tears, I came out of the other side a more well-rounded individual. 

I landed on my feet and I consider myself fortunate. It will not be as smooth a landing for others but we have to try to put contingency plans in place to anticipate the downturns. 

I learned that we can never be ‘recession-proof’ – but we can be better prepared.

The Bank of England predicts unemployment will almost double by the end of the year, from 3.9% to 7.5%.

A Monetary Policy Committee’s report has also warned that the Bank does not expect the economy to return back to pre-pandemic levels until the end of 2021.

It would be easy to worry about this year’s recession and I know that I could be out of a job in the coming months. But I can’t allow self-pity, doubt, and negativity to take over.

To those concerned about what will happen now, whether it’s getting that new job, or what lies ahead after the furlough period ends, I say: get busy, save harder – if you can – and don’t let external events define your existence.

Think about how to change the situation you are in and look for what can bring you closer to your goal, even if those steps seem impossible to achieve right now.

Understand that this is not your fault and you have to concentrate on your character, your mind, your future.

The 2008 crash stung me beyond comprehension, and it caused many sleepless nights. But it also confronted me with the fact that I have to empower myself to find the fighter within that won’t accept defeat for an answer.

It really is darkest just before the dawn.

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