I am old enough to remember a few economic downturns. I graduated from college in June 1982, a date right smack in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression. I retreated to my parents' dark, musty basement while I hunted for a job. With no skills, no experience, and facing 10 percent unemployment nationwide, my search took about a year. Ultimately, it resulted in a lousy, lowly position with a tiny public relations firm in Washington, D.C., for $10,000 a year and no benefits.
I thought I was wasting my time in that PR job but, as it turned out, I picked up a few inside-Washington skills that prepared me for my next leap. When the clouds lifted in 1983, I landed a coveted job as an editorial assistant at a city magazine here in D.C. My salary skyrocketed to $12,000 a year and included subsidized health benefits. I was on my way.
I moved up the ranks at the magazine until another recession hit in early 1991 and the magazine folded, putting me and my colleagues out of work. It also put nearly a third of the magazines across the country out of business too. Next thing I knew, I was competing with all of those experienced and talented journalists for the same, very scarce jobs.
At this point my personal overhead was higher; I had a life above ground in a sunny rental apartment and a car loan to pay. Petrified of poverty and boomeranging back to my parents' basement, I lived frugally and took on as much freelance work as I could find. Eventually, I lucked into a temporary gig filling in for an editor on maternity leave at Architecture magazine. I beat out one of my former colleagues for the job.
Within a couple of months, I saw an ad in the paper for a job with my current employer, Hanley Wood. The company was looking for a managing editor to handle five startup magazines. That was an unheard-of number to juggle in my experience at the time. But it was the new reality of doing more with less. I got the job, beating out the same former colleague I'd trumped for the Architecture gig. (But I handed off my position at Architecture to her for the remainder of its duration.)
Almost 18 years later, I remember those “more with less” times vividly. And here they are again. In fact, more with far less is the mantra these days, as we race to feed seemingly insatiable conduits of information in this hyper-technological age.
That's part of what makes this recession so much scarier than the previous ones. How we work and with whom are changing at lightspeed. So much of what we felt we knew is unknown to us now. This time, we are subsumed in the fearing of fear itself. When will things get better? Or will they—heaven forbid—get worse? This may not be an official financial depression yet, but it feels like a far-reaching emotional one. And for creative professionals, who need a certain lightness of heart to tap into the deepest veins of inspiration, this state is downright debilitating.
My experience with recessions tells me we'll eventually see better times. And the expansiveness that buoys the creative spirit will return. But my intuition also tells me we'd better get used to doing more with less than we ever thought possible. It is the new, new reality. Some relief will come, but not until we crack the code of this workplace revolution. ... Leaner and smarter staffs; more productive and entrepreneurial collaborations with other people and other companies. We'll fly even higher—no safety net to break the fall.
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