The United States recently had one of its longest periods of economic expansion in history. But after more than a decade of steady growth, economists are predicting a downturn in the coming months. The question isn’t if, it’s when.

Fears that another recession is on the horizon are on the rise, largely fueled by recent events, such as the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Decisions made to limit the spread of the virus have forced many non-essential businesses to close and lay off employees. As a result, organizations and consumers alike fear the situation will have a long-lasting negative effect on the economy.

Related: Resource Roundup: Tips & Lessons to Help You Navigate Through the Coronavirus Crisis

What Exactly Is a Recession?

Before you begin to prepare for the next recession, it’s helpful to understand what a recession is. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a recession is marked by a significant decline in economic activity that can last from several months to over a year.

"A recession is formally defined as two quarters of negative GDP growth,” says Patrick Mullane, Executive Director of Harvard Business School Online. “By that definition, it seems like we’re heading toward one, but it's hard to predict its severity or how long it will last."

Recession vs. Depression


It’s not uncommon for recessions and depressions to be discussed in conjunction with each other.

While there’s no single definition that perfectly differentiates the two terms, a depression is commonly understood to be a period of economic downturn that’s more widespread and lasts longer than a recession. For example, while the last recession (2008-09) lasted for approximately 18 months, the Great Depression lasted from 1929 until the late 1930s—about a full decade.

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Are American’s Prepared for a Recession?

Most financial experts agree that another recession is practically guaranteed. What’s less of a guarantee is whether or not Americans will fare well in a period of downturn. To find out, Harvard Business School Online worked with market research firm City Square Associates to poll 1,000 US adults and found the majority are not prepared to ride out a recession.

Here are some of our findings:

  • Two out of three are not prepared if there’s an economic downturn in the next six months
  • One-third have less than three months’ savings
  • Fifty percent say their resume is not up-to-date
  • More than half feel their current network of professionals is moderate to weak
  • Only one in three are actively networking for potential career opportunities

If you’re among those who are not ready, there’s still time. Here are five tips to help you prepare for the next recession.

How to Prepare For a Recession

1. Cut Expenses


Many experts recommend an emergency fund equivalent to six months or more of income. Yet only 27 percent have that much money saved, according to our survey.

Curb your spending. To really move the needle, go beyond skipping the Starbucks lattes. Start with bigger bills to see if you can refinance loans or eliminate little-used recurring expenses, such as cable TV. Every dollar saved can be set aside for a rainy day.

2. Polish Your Resume


More than half of survey respondents said their resumes are not up-to-date and 21 percent are not prepared to begin looking for a new job.

Step one to getting career-ready is to make sure your resume and LinkedIn profile are current. Add recent roles, new skills, certificates, and awards. In the unfortunate event that you need to find a new position, it’s essential to have your resume ready so you can start the job search as quickly as possible.

Related: How to Keep Your Career on Track During the COVID-19 Pandemic

3. Learn New Skills


If your resume needs to be refreshed, look for opportunities to supplement your existing skills and experience. Acquiring new certifications and developing your skills is a great way to show your current—and potentially future—employer you can be a valuable asset.

"It’s important to invest in yourself and keep learning,” Mullane says. “The job market is generally highly competitive during a recession, which makes it more difficult to stand out.”

By taking advantage of online courses and other resources, you can continuously refine your skills and remain competitive in the job market if the need arises to seek new employment. Nearly one-third of respondents have sharpened their skills that way, and it’s easy to fit online classes into most schedules.

Related: Should You Take An Online Class? 9 Things to Consider

4. Activate Your Network


Networking is more vital than ever, with 85 percent of new job opportunities coming from people you know, according to a recent LinkedIn and Adler Group survey. Despite that, 56 percent of our respondents say their network is only moderate or weak.

“A lot of times, people want to start networking when they need a network—and that’s not the time to be doing it,” Mullane said during a Facebook Live session. “You should be doing it while you’re employed and you don’t need to find a job.”

Not only does it come off as more authentic, but it’s more than just self-serving—it’s an opportunity for you to help others during a challenging time as well.

Tools like LinkedIn make it easy to identify people who can help you find your next job. Begin with family and friends, and reinvigorate old relationships. Leveraging the people you know and building your professional network is essential for getting through hard times.

But it’s not enough to simply connect on LinkedIn. Get out there and make solid connections with people who can open doors when you need it.

Related: How Leaders Develop and Use Their Network

5. Focus on Your Day Job


It’s an old adage: Nothing succeeds like success. If your position is susceptible to a layoff during a slow economy, it’s especially important to work hard and demonstrate your worth. Exemplary performance could save you a job or surface new opportunities within your organization if downsizing occurs.

In addition to building up your skills, make an effort to remain adaptable and helpful in the workplace. Showing how much you bring to the company on a daily basis can help you maintain job security during uncertain times.

6. Consider a Side Hustle


Making a career contingency plan with a secondary source of income could help minimize financial hardship if you lose your job. More than 54 percent of those surveyed said they would consider a side gig. That extra income could help make ends meet or even turn into a full-time position.

Learn more about how to recession-proof your life by watching our Facebook Live session with HBS Online Executive Director Patrick Mullane:


Recession-Proof Your Life

Worrying never helps, but with a downturn in the economy, it’s important to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Even with growing uncertainty and unprecedented changes, like a global pandemic, taking simple actions to prepare yourself for unexpected challenges can reduce the burden. These steps can help ensure you’ve done what you can to get recession-ready.

If you’re interested in bolstering your credentials and sharpening your business skills, explore our online course catalog to discover how you can start recession-proofing your career.

This post was updated on April 10, 2020. It was originally published on June 10, 2019.