As someone who has been working through a recession her whole working life let me just say: I know it’s tough.
I realise that I have never actually written or spoke much about my experience, and it felt like now, with some hindsight, was a good time to open up about it.
In September 2008, Lehman Brothers bank collapsed and the UK was thrown into the biggest recession since the Great Depression (by the way ‘The Big Short’ (on Netflix) is such a good film looking at that recession and the reasons why). Within a few days I had also lost my job. I was working at Eve magazine, my first job working at a magazine after a couple of years dabbling in PR.
I had been there for two years and had settled in easily, the team was small and I was just starting to gain more responsibility – styling my own pages and about to move towards my own shoots. We had no inkling that the magazine might close, and to this day, I still get the feeling it was done on a ‘whim’. We were never asked to tighten budgets and, although I was junior (senior fashion assistant) I had a lot of control over budgets and was given no sign that we needed to cut down on spending.
In fact, when the men in suits came into the office and called us all over to make an announcement, I was in the middle of a phonecall with a travel agent booking a trip for the fashion team, photographer, hair and make up artist and model to fly to the Maldives for a week long photo shoot. I said ‘can I call you back?’ And then began to listen to how the magazine was going into administration. I know it’s ‘business’ and a pure business decision but I suppose it was, for me, my first experience of being considered simply a ‘commodity’ as opposed to a hard-working member of a community that gave so much to the company. I always take my work very seriously, and to learn that, in fact, no one in HR even really knew my name, how long or hard I had worked for the past few years, hit me hard.
Everyone was shocked, and I mean beyond shocked. Why were there no discussions that things were in trouble? Why hadn’t someone said ‘let’s put those New York fashion week flights on hold as budgets are tight?’ (that I had just booked for the team), why did no one say ‘let’s hold off on the Maldives flights’. It seems that no one, not even senior management were even aware of any issues. To put it into perspective: Eve was owned by Haymarket media at the time, founded by Lord Michael Heseltine, one of the richest men in the country (311th, I believe). Eve magazine was the only magazine they owned at the time that was aimed at and run primarily by women. It was the only magazine that was cut, and around 56 women (and a few men) were in consultation. There were no discussions about ‘cutting back on costs’ over the years previously, no ‘how can we help’, we simply had 5 minute individual chats and were told the magazine would fold.
I had worked there for two years but when they looked at my contract, it turned out I covered maternity leave for 8 months of the contract so in fact, I wasn’t counted as a full member of staff until 1 year and 4 months previously. The cut off for any redundancy pay was 2 years. My salary was £16,000, I was 25 years old and I was now, unexpectedly, unemployed.
I was devastated. I’d spent 4 years working in the tough fashion industry, working late nights almost every single night. I’d have dinner from the local kebab shop in the office on a regular basis, and often had to get a taxi home as I’d missed the last tube home working on a carnet (fashion customs documents). All of these hours, all of this work building up my name in the industry, for it to be taken away by a guy in a suit we’d never seen before and whom wasn’t interested in a discussion on the matter.
Fashion assistant jobs on magazines are hard to come by. Fashion editor jobs are even harder – they’re very few and far between and at the time (I like to think it’s more democratic now) most jobs were awarded by word of mouth. I had worked my way into a magazine through no family connections, and now had lost my way ‘in’ to the industry. The industry is fickle, once you are out, you are forgotten quickly. Or, at least, this is what I believed at the time.
I was renting in London and thankfully, we had reached the 6 month break clause in our latest contract so I told my flat mate I’d have to move back home with my parents. I called my parents and cried over the phone. My dad, pragmatic as always, said ‘why are you upset? That job wasn’t right for you, you were never really happy’. I couldn’t believe he was being so insensitive but, when thinking about it, was I really happy at a job I gave all my energy to, worked all hours for very little pay, hardly saw my friends or boyfriend, and had no discussion of ever getting a payrise or promotion?
The worst part of the administration procedure was that we still had to finish publishing the issue. I still had to call PRs and get all the credits and prices for the main fashion that were shot. I had to call up the travel agent and negotiate a refund for those NYC flights so the company could recuperate the costs (I wish to this day I’d just changed the details into my name and gone!). I had to work on my CV and cold email magazines asking for any work whatsoever, work experience where necessary as I knew, after working in the industry for 4 years, which is now in a huge recession, I’d probably have to start from the beginning.
And I did. I initially signed up to unemployment benefits whilst I was seeking freelance opportunities and full-time jobs, then there were rumours of a fashion assistant job going at Red magazine, and luckily they needed someone to freelance there whilst they were recruiting who knew the ins and outs of a magazine and didn’t need ‘training’. I turned up day 1 and got stuck in, asked no questions and immediately settled in.
Within this time, my pleas with the Haymarket HR worked and they awarded me a small amount of redundancy money, I think it was 2 months pay tax free, which for me, £2k was unbelievable and allowed me to pay off some of my debt whilst living from home and sorting out my financial situation.
I applied for the fashion assistant job at Red, which at 25 and with 4 years experience, I was overqualified for, but it was a better magazine and a bigger team. And 4 months after my experience at Eve magazine ended, my new career began.
Looking back, it’s as if all that stress didn’t really happen. I was lucky, I landed on my feet and ended up working at Red for 7 years. I left as Style Editor for the title with tons of experiences photographing celebrities, overseas fashion shoots, editing 20 page shopping sections within the magazine and helping organise huge events. I learnt so much from the team, senior staff and editors there (both in terms of excellence, how to treat staff and sometimes, how not to) and it has equipped me so well on my freelance journey.
Being made redundant in the past has made me think differently: I am always aware of the fragility of employment. Not in a scary way, but I always try and think ahead – what’s next? What is my plan B? Having a plan B, this website, allowed me the freedom to go freelance and work for myself and have the freedom to work around my family. Without thinking ahead, this wouldn’t be possible.
Having worked throughout a recession I am always cost conscious. Both in terms of value in paying people (understanding their costs as well as my own) but about the value of items in terms of a reader. I have not always been comfortable with money, and times have been tough, and although we are comfortable now, knowing that others might be struggling, being made redundant and worry about job security at this time is important. I have been there.
It sounds like a cliche but I can honestly say that, looking back, it was the best thing that happened to me. I probably wouldn’t have applied for that job at Red if I was comfortable at Eve, I wouldn’t have then had my successful career and met all the amazing people I worked with, I (possibly) wouldn’t have gone on to have a brilliantly rewarding freelance career, working at Conde Nast Traveller and carving out my own niche on my website. I might have, but I also believe losing my job with nothing lined up gave me a confidence that I could do it. When I handed in my notice to finally go freelance, I had no work lined up but I knew I’d be fine. I’d done it before and I could do it again. A resilience is built up.
If anyone is going through a tough time with work right now, or feeling nervous about the looming recession – I feel you. It’s hard. But I want you to know you’re not alone, there are people to talk to. And probably, speaking to a lot of people who have been through the same experience, with a bit of hindsight, it can lead to positives further down the road (even if you can’t see it yet!). Out of recession often comes the most brilliant, creative ideas and it can be a time of great change. Here’s hoping.