A class apart

The class of '02 has stepped into a world racked by recession and uncertainty. But as Kim Dungey discovered, it is not slowing them down.

Today's 20-somethings consider themselves lucky to be in work and not looking for their first jobs in an economic recession.

While for some, the downturn has meant delaying their travels and staying at university longer.

Finances were a hot topic when we caught up recently with the 57 people who received Otago Daily Times Class Act awards as high school pupils in 2002.

Judge's clerk Bridget Fenton has not directly felt the sting of the recession, but says some of her contemporaries have and that has a "ripple effect".

"I went through university during a financial boom and the feeling was that anything was possible," she recalls.

"That feeling has changed over the last year or so, and young professionals see employment quite differently. I think we probably value it more consciously now."

After seeing six colleagues recently made redundant, Zoe Moffatt, an environmental scientist in Sydney, also appreciates how lucky she is to have secured a good job before the recession hit: "It's a lot harder to get a graduate position now, compared to a couple of years ago".

Jesse Robertson, who is doing scientific research in Canberra, says there has been an influx of people returning to university and completing postgraduate qualifications while they wait for the job market to improve.

Fran Hackshaw, who is working on her master's thesis, has noticed a downturn in the amount of academic funding available worldwide, especially student scholarships.

Frances Jackways thought she would have travelled more by now, instead of starting her legal career straight from university, and admits to sometimes being "jealous" of friends and family who are overseas.

However, she is happy to be gaining experience and saving for a house.

"Being able to get a job, keep it, and then being able to move between jobs has become a lot more uncertain," she says.

"Also the ability to enjoy an overseas experience, as we could have in the last decade. The number of job opportunities overseas isn't the same as it was, so I feel our earning potential has decreased."

Paul Maxwell, an electrician in Melbourne, would be in Ireland by now if he had not met so many out-of-work Irish tradesmen who had moved to Australia in search of jobs.

However, others like winemaker Duncan Gibson say the recession has not changed how they see their futures, as their skills will still be in demand.

Full-time mum Suny Verberne Heazlewood says that with enough publicity, humans can be put into a panic about anything.

"No, it hasn't changed my view of the future. Luckily, the recession hasn't affected my eyesight".

And PhD student Callum Spence says he does not need a global financial crisis to remind him to be smart about money and grateful for what he has.

Last year, we caught up with the 58 Class Act recipients from 2001 and found 16 of them were overseas.

This time there are only nine - seven of them in Australia - though many plan to travel in the future.

Twenty-one are still in the Otago-Southland region. Ten are in Canterbury and nine in Wellington. Only 13 are still studying. Four are married and 18 others are living with partners. Three have children.

A dozen have bought houses, including Paul Maxwell who, on his last day at high school, cashed up his insurance policy to help buy a rental property in Dunedin.

But asked if their student loans had been cleared yet, bar manager Scott Becker said "Don't make me laugh", and tax consultant Daniel Gibbons suggested asking him again in 2020.

The Class Act award recognises general excellence and nearly a decade on, the 2002 winners are still achieving in a variety of fields.

Jinty MacTavish produced an award-winning film, Lessons From a Melting Icecap.

Joe Dobson won last year's national Registered Master Builders Apprentice of the Year competition.

Naomi Johnstone has worked for the UN doing post-tsunami and post-conflict work in Indonesia, and for an international conflict-prevention NGO in Sri Lanka.

Katrina Yelavich moved to Wellington to further her acting and has just appeared in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Duncan Gibson is assistant winemaker at Chard Farm winery near Queenstown and works three months each year in the northern hemisphere.

In sport, Andy McMillan holds a national swimming title, Helen Caley won gold at the last Taekwondo World Cup, Craig Smith has played club cricket in England, Scott Becker is in the New Zealand men's curling team and former sprinter Katie Schofield is carving out a new career in cycling.

Incidentally, two others involved in the 2002 Class Act ceremony have also moved on.

Former prime minister Helen Clark heads the United Nations development programme while retired Otago Daily Times editor Robin Charteris, a travel writer, is part of a three-man team investigating the feasibility of a Chinese heritage trail in Otago, editor of the New Zealand Grey Power magazine and planning a trip to Poland, Paris and Prague.

Jennifer Pierce, one of the Class Act recipients now in Europe, says she has refused to let the recession stop her doing what she wants to and describes her lifestyle as "footloose and fancy free".

Pierce left New Zealand with her backpack and British passport and, having landed a job as a chef on a tour bus, is in no hurry to return home.

"I am in every sense living the dream, with my only hurdles being shopping for 50 people in foreign supermarkets the size of [those in] my home town of Wanaka and cooking for 50 people out of a tent."


So are our former Class Act recipients doing what they imagined they would be? "Absolutely," says IT consultant Jeremy Weir.

"I've always had a huge passion for technology and am not at all surprised to have ended up working in a technology-driven domain."

Ditto Veronica Boyle, a junior doctor at Southland Hospital: "This is what I hoped. I'm amazed I'm actually doing it".

But Joe Dobson "fell into" building after stints in the army and bricklaying: "I never wanted to be a builder. If I did, I would have paid more attention in maths".

And others discovered their direction only after completing studies in different fields.

These include Katrina Yelavich, who recently broke into the Wellington theatre scene but never imagined she would "follow so many other paths trying to get there".

"Like everybody at the end of their high school years, I had really big and exciting ideas of where I wanted to be," says Yelavich, who holds a BA in German and a postgraduate diploma in teaching.

"It's taken me the last seven years to sort those out into realistic ideas. But they are nevertheless still very exciting."

Jinty MacTavish took a first-year environment and society paper at university on a whim, mainly because it fitted into her timetable, and found herself "catapulted headfirst into the massive environmental and social challenges humanity is facing".

Now she not only works for the Enviroschools programme, but has vowed never to willingly step on a plane again.

Ben Young, who has his own internet marketing company, catalogued "stuff" he'd like to do in life after frittering away a school holiday on his PlayStation.

The list included becoming head boy, starting a business and writing a book - all of which he has accomplished.

But flight attendant Tameryn Botha is still hoping for an "epiphany" when it will hit her what she is to do when she "grows up".

For many, their biggest challenge since school had been sticking it out at university, coping with sports injuries, balancing work and play, or moving away from family and friends.

One woman was diagnosed with a mental illness and another battled a dependency on alcohol.

For Jennifer Pierce, it was surviving four Dunedin winters in student flats and changing her hard-earned Kiwi dollars into British pounds - "pure heart-attack material".

For Daniel Gibbons, raising his son while both he and his wife studied full-time was both a challenge and an accomplishment.

When asked about the pressing issues facing their generation, many cited war, poverty, climate change and our dependence on fossil fuel.

Others were concerned about youth suicide, alcohol abuse and increasing levels of personal debt.

Several talked about a need to fight apathy, Reserve Bank analyst Gina Williamson adding that growing up in a world of complicated and "ever-increasing" issues can lead people to think the problems are "too big".

Health and fitness shop owner Ben MacGregor dislikes New Zealand's "tall poppy syndrome" and says encouraging healthy competition would stimulate learning and achievement.

Fran Hackshaw worries that people her age have developed a dependency on technology and lost something of the entrepreneurial spirit of earlier generations.

Generation Y finds it difficult to stay committed to a job or wait for anything, Scott Becker adds.

"They need to know that if you want to get anywhere, you must stick to it and work hard to get it."

But Ben Young says his is the first generation to have the world in its hands: "We can do anything, be anyone and achieve it very fast.

The flipside is that our own personal growth often hasn't prepared us for such change".

When it comes to offering advice, the "Class of 2002" urges this year's award-winners to make the most of every opportunity, not be pressured by other people's visions of success and do what makes them happy.

Their own futures are far from certain.

Most are happy to go wherever work and other opportunities take them. Many hope to buy their own homes, study further, start their own businesses.

One example is Sarah Bryant who wants to continue working as a dentist, compete overseas in professional triathlon races, trek in Nepal and do aid work.

"I have lots of plans for the future," she says.

"And the list is forever getting longer as I keep finding fun things to do."

For the individual profiles of the class of 2002 see today's ODT.


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