The Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 is still fresh in the minds of many American workers, business owners and investors. The global financial meltdown triggered the longest recession since World War II and created the most toxic business conditions since the Great Depression [source: Rampell]. Unemployment soared to 10 percent in January 2009 as companies closed doors or cut costs to ride out the rough times [source: BLS].
Thankfully, the U.S. economy made a strong comeback over the following decade. Investors rode a bull market that saw the Dow Jones Industrial Average reach nearly 30,000 points and the national unemployment rate sink to 3.5 percent, the lowest in 50 years [source: Long].
But with every boom comes a bust and recession-watchers have been primed for a reversal of fortunes. The economic devastation reaped by Covid-19 may be the spark that ignites a prolonged slump. If that's the case, then it's time again for workers, entrepreneurs and investors to seek refuge in so-called recession-proof businesses.
Recession-proof businesses are traditionally defined as industries that either thrive during rotten economic times or at least survive unscathed. The global financial crisis of 2007-2009, however, rewrote the rules about recessions. Many economists are now saying that there's no longer such a thing as a recession-proof business. The best that employees can hope for is a recession-resistant business, meaning one with a better chance than most of riding out a recession [source: Chase].
The key to job security during a recession, experts say, is to find a company or industry that shows long-term growth potential, is immune from outsourcing and isn't tied to the fickle tastes of consumers [sources: Burt].
So what might those be? Here are some examples, in no particular order, starting with some inexpensive purchases that are guaranteed to make you feel better.
Candy and Comfort Foods
If anyone likes a quick pick-me-up, it's the stressed out American worker. If you're lucky enough to keep your job during a recession, then you're probably bracing for the next round of layoffs. While heavy drinking at the office is frowned upon, nearly everyone can get behind a big bowl of jellybeans.
Candy consumption in the United States went through the roof during the Great Recession. The New York Times reported that Cadbury's profits were up 30 percent in 2008, and Nestle saw a 10.9 percent growth [source: Haughney]. Hershey's saw its overall sales increase 4.7 percent a year from 2008 to 2010 during the worst of the recession [source: Prokop].
Inexpensive, sweet treats provide a necessary break from all of the bad news. Indeed, during the Great Depression, treats like Snickers, Tootsie Pops and Mars Bars were all invented, and are still enjoyed today [source: Haughney].
Sweet and salty comfort foods were also a go-to during the early weeks of the Covid-19 crisis. In mid-March 2020, retailers reported chocolate candy sales were up 21.1 percent over the same period in 2019 and ice cream sales jumped 34.5 percent [source: Prokop].
Recessions don't affect everybody equally. According to Newsweek, the total number of worldwide billionaires jumped 20 percent in 2008 [source: Theil]. Forbes counted a record number of billionaires in 2013 — 1,426 — while several parts of the economy were still recovering from the recession [source: Reuters]. Many of these über-rich live in Russia, the Middle East and Asia and have no problem splurging for a jumbo private jet or their very own sun-soaked island in the Mediterranean. The number of millionaires in India grew 22 percent over 2007-2008 and China witnessed a 15 percent bump in millionaires in 2011 [sources: Smith and New].
In the U.S., sales of ultra-luxury goods like $1,500 pairs of shoes or diamond-encrusted handbags slumped sharply in early 2009, but companies like Hermès and LVMH more than made up with Chinese sales [source: Masidlover and Passariellor]. As early as 2011, luxury retailers were some of the first to bounce back in the U.S., with brands like Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent boasting a 23 percent increase in sales while more modest retailers were starving for customers [sources: Clifford, Reeves]. One luxury car dealership in Manhattan specializing in Lamborghini, Bentley and Rolls-Royce models — each retailing in the low six figures — said 2011 was one of its best sales year ever [source: Gross].
During the Great Recession, 8 million Americans lost their jobs and household income dropped by 5 percent on average [source: Cho, Todd and Saksena]. When money is tight, budgets need to be even tighter and tough choices have to be made. Keeping food on the table is priority No. 1 for most families, which explains why grocery sales appear to be recession-resistant especially when compared to eating out at restaurants.
The USDA tracked food spending during the Great Recession and found some striking numbers. On one hand, Americans drastically cut back on spending on food away from home (both fast-food and full-service restaurants). From 2006 to 2010, restaurant spending fell by 18 percent or $47 billion and didn't return to pre-recession levels until 2016. Grocery store spending, on the other hand, was strong and steady throughout the Great Recession, actually growing by 8 percent from pre-recession to 2016 [source: Cho, Todd and Saksena].
While the total dollars spent at grocery stores remains steady during recessions, the items people buy do change. As unemployment rose during the Great Recession, Americans bought significantly more sale items, bulk products and generic goods, and they used more coupons than in pre-recession years [source: Gorman].
The Federal Government
A report by USA Today found that workers in many federal agencies are more likely to die than lose their job. The federal government job security rate was 99.43 percent in 2010, meaning only about half of 1 percent of the federal workforce was fired or laid off. In the private sector, an average of 3 percent of workers are fired for poor performance each year, and that doesn't include layoffs [source: Cauchon].
Another study found that federal workers were 4.2 percent less likely to lose their job in a non-recession year compared to private-sector workers, and even less likely to lose the same job during a recession [source: Kopelman and Rosen].
State and local government job security is an entirely different story. During the Great Recession consumers cut spending which affected state and local tax revenue. Faced with budget crises, many states enacted steep budget cuts. Even as the economy slowly recovered in the first half of 2010, state and local governments cut 95,000 jobs while the private sector added nearly 600,000 [source: Leonard]. By late 2013, however, local and state jobs appeared to be bouncing back, especially in the education sector. In 2019, HR professionals in state and local government said hiring had increased modestly but layoffs were down 42 percent from 2009 [source: Center for State and Local Government Excellence].
Colleges and Universities
Studies show that students are more like to enroll in college and even more likely to stay in college during a recession [source: Parker]. That was true during the Great Recession and every U.S. recession since the 1960s, making higher education one of the more recession-resistant sectors around.
Older workers fueled some of the uptick in college enrollment during the Great Recession. As layoffs increased, some older workers decided to go back to school to upgrade their skills. In 2007, only 1.9 million adults ages 40 to 60 were enrolled in college, but that number jumped to 2.3 million by 2011 [source: Airoldi].
While colleges and universities were less likely to hire young or first-time professors during the Great Recession, they held on to tenured faculty and even raised their salaries [source: Parker]. The time to get hired is in the boom years, though. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts an 11 percent increase in demand for post-secondary teachers from 2018-2028, which the BLS calls "much faster than average."
The traditional logic is that sin wins when the economy loses. Like candy, cigarette sales skyrocketed during the Great Depression, and tobacco stocks are still a smart buy in any recession [source: Gibbons]. Share prices of tobacco companies grow 4 percent a year on average whether it's a recession or a boom year [source: Wachman].
But in contrast to popular wisdom, people tend to spend less on so-called "sin" industries like alcohol and cigarettes during recessions. The reason, some experts say, is not that people stop indulging during lousy times, but that they cut back some or downgrade the quality of their favorite vice.
For example, the National Restaurant Association reported that wine sales "by the glass" rose sharply as whole bottle sales slumped in 2008. And the Beer Institute said that beer sales in restaurants dropped in 2008, while wholesale beer sales from cheaper stores went up [source: Cohn].
Tattoo parlors, on the other hand, boom through both recession and recovery. According to a Harris Poll, one in five Americans (21 percent) had a tattoo in 2012, up from 14 percent in 2008. People get tattoos during recessions because they are a relatively cheap way to express yourself creatively and boost self-confidence. On the flip side, tattoo removal services also boom during a recession as laid-off workers erase conspicuous ink to appear more professional in interviews [source: Berlin].
Walmart has more than its fair share of critics. The superstore has spread across the world quickly, knocking off smaller competitors in its path. But no matter what you think of its business tactics, low prices trump politics during a recession. While nearly every other large American retailer suffered significant losses in the first months of 2009, Walmart reported a 5.1 percent increase in profits, more than doubling Wall Street's expectations of 2.4 percent [source: Reeves]. Walmart first surpassed $400 billion in sales during its 2008-2009 fiscal year [source: Rosenbloom].
Not surprisingly, dollar stores and thrift stores also thrive during recessions. The three biggest American discount chains — Dollar General, Family Dollar and Dollar Tree — became Wall Street darlings during the recession as they each added thousands of stores from 2008 to 2012 [source: Zimmerman]. The share price of Dollar Tree, for example, increased 200 percent from 2008 to 2011 [source: Randall]. Thrift stores and trendier "resale" shops also drew in new customers. According to the America's Research Group, 20 percent of people in 2012 said they shopped at thrift stores "regularly," up from 14 percent in 2008 [source: Tully].
Despite the bursting of the information technology (IT) bubble that played a key role in the recession of the early 2000s, information technology was the fastest-growing sector in the United States economy before, during and after the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 [source: Izzo]. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the IT sector grew 37 percent from 2003 to 2013. In 2009, during the darkest days of the Great Recession, the IT sector only lost 1 percent of its workforce. But by 2010, employment growth had exceeded 2008 levels again [source: Csorny].
IT skills are in even greater demand today than they were back in the 2000s. Because technology now permeates every sector of the economy, every company is now a "tech" company. Every business now needs systems administrators, software designers and cybersecurity specialists, so the demand for qualified workers is higher than ever. In 2019, it took employers an average of 66 days to fill a tech-related position because of the shortage of qualified applicants [source: Liu].
If the Great Recession is any indication, that demand will continue through another economic slump.
For years, health care has topped every list of recession-proof businesses. The logic is that people continue to get sick, even in bad economic times. But does that automatically translate into profits for the entire health care sector? Let's take a closer look.
From 2008 to 2012, a span that covers the Great Recession and early recovery, health care spending in the U.S. grew at a sluggish 4.2 percent annually. Compare that to the 8.8 percent annual growth experienced from 2001 to 2003 after the early 2000s recession [source: Nordqvist]. Analysts believe there is a direct connection between the stagnant overall economy and lower spending on medical services.
But health care employment during the Great Recession was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dreadful job market. While other industries shrunk from 2007 to 2009, health care employment grew by 6.6 percent or 852,000 jobs. Overall, health care was one of the fastest-growing job sectors from 2001 to 2014, a period spanning two recessions. Health care employment increased by 31.6 percent over those 13 years, compared to overall nonfarm job growth of only 5.7 percent [source: Dolfman].
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in the health care sector will grow by 14 percent from 2018 to 2028, "much faster than average" for all occupations. The BLS predicts a 36 percent growth in demand for both home health aides and personal health aides to serve the aging baby boomer population.
If you're looking for a truly recession-proof business, then there are a few old standards that might not be sexy, but they sure are reliable. These noncyclical businesses survive through good times and bad because they provide basic, necessary services.
Funeral services are a good example. Funeral homes see a steady stream of business no matter how the stock market is performing, although funeral directors in every state reported a significant rise in cremation requests — a far less expensive procedure than burial — during the Great Recession [source: Sack].
And since we're on the subject of death, we might as well mention the other of life's guarantees: taxes. As long as the IRS keeps things confusing, there will be plenty of work for accountants. During the Great Recession, fees collected by accounting firms grew only 0.6 percent from 2008 to 2009, but at least it was growth [source: Rosenberg]. Many other industries experienced double-digit decreases. One group that struggled during the Great Recession, however, were small, one-man accounting firms that mostly served small businesses. The big national chains were fine [source: Byrt].
Other industries that fall under the non-cyclical banner are religious organizations, the military, pharmaceuticals, veterinary services and repair technicians. So if you lose your job as a hedge fund manager, you might consider a career as a vacuum-repairing priest.
The U.S. food supply chain has been rocked by the coronavirus pandemic, but so far, it's still functioning. How long will that last?
More Great Links
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