The Tire Factory installation | Photo by Ieva Mikolaviciute

A “millennial” encounter with the Great Recession

I was helping my dad clean out my parents’ garage last month. In reality, this meant fiddling with treasures, playing with tools, flipping through old books, listening to talk radio and occasionally organizing things to feel a slight sense of accomplishment.

One thing triggered a memory coma: the old lawn mower. As I traced my finger over the gauges and steering wheel, I thought back to those hot summers when I mowed the lawn with my Walkman and puffy headphones: Pearl Jam, Mariah and Coolio hardly audible over the roar of mower. My thighs sweaty and suctioned to the seat.

I was very lucky as a kid, for more reasons than I can list. One reason is that I had parents who believed in chores. (My eight-year-old self is appalled by this statement. She’s throwing a Nerf ball at my head.)

The one chore that didn’t feel like a chore was mowing the lawn. When I was 10, I couldn’t wait until I was tall enough and “mature enough” to drive the lawn mower. It was real driving and it was my destiny.

When I grew a bit and my older sister developed a grass allergy, it was finally my time. I loved learning how to fill the mower with gas, check the bags and unclog the pipe.

Mowing was fun. At first. It took three or four hours, depending on how much it rained that week. As I got older, mowing lost its thrill. Racing against my own time was no longer fun.

I started to take more and more breaks as my desire for the task decreased. I started caring less and less about missing corners as my desire to do anything but the task increased.

My dad noticed. He would ask what happened to the chunks of lawn I missed, pointing to the corners near the driveway or the mohawk-like patches blowing in the breeze. On one of these occasions, my dad told me something about his father that I still think about today.

I only recall certain details about my grandfather. He died when I was eight. I remember his Marines tattoo, the ringing sound of his hearing aid, and his long arms when he’d throw balsa wood airplanes off the back porch with my brother, sister and me.

And I’ll always remember my dad telling me how Grampy worked in a tire factory, and that he couldn’t take breaks whenever he wanted, like I could. He couldn’t be sloppy or miss things, because if his job wasn’t done right, it messed with someone else’s job down the line. Work was hard and it was hot and it was loud and it was long and it was most of your life.

My grandfather encouraged my dad to work hard in school and pursue a field that energized him, making hard work something to be desired, not dreaded. He did. Both my dad and my mom passed on those same values to me. I did. Many people I know share these values, but they all have different stories of how they got there.

This got me thinking about generations of workers, the values and beliefs we share, and the role of luck in our lives.


How lucky that my most laborious chore as a kid was mowing the yard, not fetching water.

How lucky to be born into a family who could afford a lawn mower.

How lucky that I graduated college years before the economy collapsed, with time to get my footing in the working world before everything changed. Despite their overtly generalized reputation, I have tremendous respect for those who graduated in 2009 and managed to work their way into a steady job. Their view peeking out the doorway from college into the working world was not my view. I was just four years ahead of them, but my view had flowers. Dandelions at least.

How lucky that my husband was laid off while we were trying to buy our first home in 2008, prompting us to move cities. Otherwise we would’ve become first-time homeowners just a few months before my department dissolved. I unknowingly left before it did.

How lucky that, six months into my new job at a consulting firm, I had a manager who thought I would be better suited for a different role. This new position helped keep me safe from rounds of restructuring as the churn of 2008 seeped into the corners of every industry, sector and city, wrapping its claws around the throats of even the best companies.

How lucky to meet a few special people who helped me realize that embracing your own weirdness is synonymous with living.

All of this luck during such volatility. Luck that I didn’t recognize as luck until much later.

Funny how hindsight can crack open a dam of gratitude.

I’m interested in exploring how a widespread yet uniquely individual experience—like a recession—can shape people; how it can change the way we think, work and interact with each other; how we develop trust and build relationships.

What did we learn from 2008? Are there more shared patterns of learning across age groups, industries or psychographics? The 22-year-olds who entered the workforce in 2009: Do they share uniquely similar values, beliefs and ethics as the 22-year-olds who entered the market in 2001, 1991 and 1982? They shared similar moments in time, just in different contexts and different decades.

In 2009, four years into my career, the recession taught me the following:

  1. Nobody knows exactly what they’re doing most of the time. Everyone is making it up as they go, no matter their role or position of power. Nobody is certain because nothing is certain. Confidence is not certainty. Confidence is confidence.
  2. Don’t assume your job will be relevant in six months. Always be doing. Always do something more than you’re supposed to. Do not sit and do not wait.
  3. Chase down people smarter than you. This is a no brainer, but it requires some guts to admit that you don’t know what you’re doing.(However, take heart in #1.)
  4. When fortunate things happen, remember that it’s not just because of your hard work. A lot of smart people work very hard. A lot of smart, hardworking people were not as lucky as you.
  5. You can’t know what you don’t know. And whatever you think you know is only a potato chip crumb of what you could know. So ask questions. (And be mindful of how you ask.)

These are the five things I learned during the recession. Are they unique and profound? Nah. Would my grandfather have created this same list as he neared retirement? Maybe. Did a fellow 30-something create a similar list in 1991? Likely.

I think generations of people share more similarities than we think we do, but we’re blinded by our own vanity and posturing, and we too easily give in to our brain’s desire to group things. Lazy generalizations lead to swiftly structured walls that prohibit openness and honesty. And hell, if we all talked, if we were more honest, and if we learned from each other, could we band together to figure out how to mitigate economic downturns in the first place? (Yeah, I sound like an idealistic nut job. I don’t care.)

When we talk about the economy, people say, “Everything is cyclical.” I can’t fully buy into this statement, despite the data. I can’t allow myself to believe that humans are such stubborn, incompetent learners. I can’t accept that while we might do things differently based on previous experience, it’s always built on the same flawed decision patterns that ultimately lead to the same output. (I think Dan Ariely is going to prove me wrong on this. We’ll see.)

I have a lot more questions on this topic than even moderately informed guesses. Applying #5 from the list, I suppose.

I take strange comfort in knowing that everything we think, say and do is through the lens of personal experience, and that everyone’s view is unique. Nobody is more right. Our perceptions, beliefs and biases are quiet companions that we unknowingly carry with us and apply to every experience and relationship thereafter, sometimes to our benefit. Sometimes to our demise.

But there’s a lot of lawn out there. And some luck. It’s up to us to figure out what to do with it.

Caitlin Vlastakis Smith

Written by

Listener, storyteller, advocate for human-centered design and sense-making. Imperfect writer, maker, and mother.

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