Many young Americans are experiencing their first recession as adults.
At the Stone Soup Kitchen, a local cafe in Atlanta's hip Cabbagetown neighborhood, some patrons and workers — mostly in their 20s and 30s — are facing questions about what these times mean for their future.
"We're all about to graduate and go in this real world. We're not looking forward to it," said part-time server Monica Owen-Head, who is 22. She will graduate from Georgia State University in a few months, and she says this recession scares her.
"My friend graduated last semester and still can't find a job at all," she said. "He's still working in a coffee shop. That's what I don't want. I love this place. I don't want to work here when I graduate."
Stone Soup Kitchen serves up cheap comfort food in Cabbagetown, a neighborhood full of artists, musicians, young couples.
Jason Palmer, who was eating breakfast with his wife, Hannah, said he was laid off for nine months last year. Palmer, who is in his early 30s, had been living his dream: He was happily married and had moved up to a supervisor position at a video production company. Then the company downsized, and Palmer lost his job. That's when he got creative.
"I literally became a professional scrap guy when I was unemployed, looking for work," he said.
He scoured the streets for metal that people had tossed out, then brought it to a local dump that paid good money for the scrap.
He said he'd be out dropping off resumes, wearing his "Sunday-best suit," and he'd see a washing machine on the side of the road and pick it up. "I could take a truckload of stuff over there, and it'd be two weeks of grocery money, easy," he said.
"That was a weird year," said his wife. But she appreciated her husband's resourcefulness.
Palmer recently found a job with the Federal Reserve in Atlanta. The couple have paid off their debts and started putting money into savings.
Rethinking Saving For The Future
But Palmer says people his age face a difficult decision now. After watching their parents' retirement savings vanish, they wonder whether investing in pension funds and retirement accounts is still the best idea.
"A lot of people, at least that I know, their eyes are being opened up," he said.
He did set up a 401(k) retirement savings account at his new job. But each time he sees money come out of his paycheck, he feels a risk.
"I have a bit of anxiety about what it means to think you're doing the right thing and all of a sudden it doesn't add up in the end," he said.
Around the restaurant, patrons expressed different kinds of fears.
Waitress Raqi Carter, 24, was part of the youth movement that helped President Obama win the White House. "I just love what he's going to do for black men. It's exciting," she said. But the economy has dampened her excitement. She said she doesn't have faith that the president can find a solution, even with his best effort.
And, Carter said, what if Obama pushes his costly stimulus plan through Congress and Americans still don't feel relief?
"If he puts this out and it doesn't work or do anything, people will be like, 'I told you we shouldn't vote for him,' " she said. Growing up, she said, she often heard people say that "being a black person, you don't really have room for mistakes. You've got to be good the first time around. Mistakes are kind of unforgiven."
The Upside Of A Downturn
For all the worry at Stone Soup Kitchen, it wasn't a melancholy place. As I travel the U.S. during Obama's first 100 days in office, I've met people who are consumed by hardship. But people at Stone Soup Kitchen were still chatting about their weekend, or the local hip-hop scene.
The kitchen manager, Sam Terrell, put a positive spin on the recession. With jobs so scarce, he said, there isn't a lot of pressure on a young guy to pick a career.
"I think it's more of an opportunity than anything to take this time now to go back to school," he said, "and save whatever money you can" — and maybe just enjoy life.
Terrell, a soft-spoken 23-year-old, is actually a rapper. He's happiest when he's on the road, doing shows with Supreeme, his Atlanta-based hip-hop group.
He came outside with me so we could pop one of his CDs into my rental car.
"This is called 'The Best Years' right here," Terrell said as one of his songs played. "We're kind of being ironic. At the same time, this is the best time in our life, it's also the economy's bad, everything is sort of crazy, everybody's losing their jobs, and, you know, record companies are kind of slow. But we're still out here enjoying ourselves, making the best rap, just living it up the best we can, because these are the best years of our life."
I bought Terrell's CD for $10, so his message and his music are sticking with me as I drive on south.