CHICAGO — Drew Miller clearly remembers the day his father was laid off.
Miller, now 25, was a freshman at an Ohio college, full of hope and ready to take on the world. But here was this “red flag … a big wake-up call,” he says. The prosperous years of childhood were over, and his future was likely to be bumpier than he’d expected.
Across the country, others of Miller’s generation heard that same wake-up call as the Great Recession set in. But would it change them? And would the impact last?
The full effect won’t be known for awhile, of course. But a new analysis of a long-term survey of high school students provides an early glimpse at ways their attitudes shifted in the first years of this most recent economic downturn.
Among the findings: Young people showed signs of being more interested in conserving resources and a bit more concerned about their fellow human beings.
Compared with youths who were surveyed a few years before the recession hit, more of the Great Recession group also was less interested in big-ticket items such as vacation homes and new cars, though they still placed more importance on them than young people who were surveyed in the latter half of the 1970s, an era with its own economic challenges.
Either way, it appears this latest recession “has caused a lot of young people to stop in their tracks and think about what’s important in life,” says Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University who co-authored the study with researchers from UCLA.
The analysis, released Thursday, is published in the online edition of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Its data comes from “Monitoring the Future,” an annual survey of young people that began in the mid-1970s. The authors of the study compared responses of high school seniors from three time periods 1976-1978 and 2004-2006, as well as 2008-2010, the first years of the Great Recession.
They found that, at the beginning of this latest recession, more of the 12th-graders were willing to use a bicycle or mass transit instead of driving — 36 percent in 2008-2010, compared with 28 percent in the mid-2000s. However, that was still markedly lower than the 49 percent of respondents in the 1970s group who said the same.
There were similar patterns for other responses, such as those who said they:
Make an effort to turn heat down to save energy: 78 percent (1976-1978); 55 percent (2004-2006); and 63 percent (2008-2010).
Want a job directly helpful to others: 50 percent (1976-1978); 44 percent (2004-2006); and 47 percent (2008-2010).
Would eat differently to help the starving: 70 percent (1976-1978); 58 percent (2004-2006); and 61 percent (2008-2010).
Psychologist Patricia Greenfield said the findings fit with other research she’s done that shows that people become more community-minded and less materialistic when faced with economic hardship.
“To me, it’s a silver lining,” says Greenfield, another of the study’s contributors, along with lead author Heejung Park, an advanced doctoral student in psychology at UCLA.
Their analysis found that, of the three groups, the Great Recession group was still most likely to want jobs where they could make a “significant” amount of money. But the authors say that may simply be attributable to the ever-rising cost of day-to-day expenses, from groceries to electric and gas bills.
In comparison, they note that the Great Recession group also showed a bit less interest in luxury items than the students who were surveyed in the mid-2000s.
For instance, 41 percent of high school seniors questioned 2008-2010 said it was important to own a vacation home, compared with 46 percent in 2004-2006. Again, both percentages are higher than the 34 percent who said the same in 1976-1978.
These findings have a margin of error of plus-or-minus 1 percentage point, or less.
Tina Wells, CEO of Buzz Marketing Group, which tracks youth trends, says the analysis fits with what she’s seen in her own work.
Many young people, she says, are living in what she calls “millennial purgatory,” unemployed or under-employed, working in jobs below their qualifications, and sometimes still living at home with their parents. During the Great Recession, the unemployment rate for 15- to 24-year-olds has risen above 20 percent more than double the overall rate.
“If you’re 22 and trying to jump-start your life right now, it’s not so easy,” Wells says.
As a result, various 20-somethings have tempered their career expectations in different ways.
Until the economy improves, “I’ve been opting for security over the perfect job,” says Calvin Wagner, a 24-year-old accountant in suburban Cincinnati. As he bides his time, working for a small company with little chance for advancement, he’s studying for the exam to become a certified public accountant.
Like many of the survey respondents, Ashley Rousseau, a 25-year-old in Miami, says she’s now more focused on a job that helps her community in some way than in landing “a corner office.”
“The recession made it even more clear that I’m not going to find job satisfaction from a high-paying career,” says Rousseau, who’s getting her MBA and works at the medical school at Florida International University, which she says “improves the medical care in the community.”
“I’m proud to be part of that mission,” she says.
Miller, the 25-year-old whose dad was laid off, left Ohio when he couldn’t find work there in his field, electrical engineering. He moved to Alexandria, Va., after finding a government contracting job. But he recently decided to take a chance on a new company that’s using “smart technology” to help big corporations cut electrical usage for lighting their spaces.
Though it meant taking a small pay cut, he says having a job that helps the environment was a “huge” motivator.
It remains to be seen, however, how members of this generation will cope with this economic adversity.
Brent Donnellan, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, has found that how parents handle the stress of an economic situation affects a child’s resilience. But so does the child’s personality. Perhaps not surprisingly, Donnellan says, studies have found that young people who have more self-control and who do well in school tend to weather economic hardship better.
Still others wonder if the shifts in attitudes noted in the study will last.
Lane Kenworthy, who’s looked at the impact of various recessions, isn’t so sure.
“In almost every case, public opinion has roughly gone back right back to what it was before,” says Kenworthy, a professor of sociology and political science at the University of Arizona, who co-wrote a chapter on this topic for a book titled The Great Recession.
The biggest exception, he says, is the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment rose as high as 25 percent.
That major economic downturn saw a big shift toward the Democratic party, he says, and an embracing of government programs such as Social Security.
The downturn of the 1970s, which caused public opinion to sway Republican, was the only other noteworthy exception he found, he says.
Kenworthy says this recession might impact young people more because they tend to be more impressionable than their elders. But he says a lot will hinge on how long the economic downturn lasts and how deeply they feel the pain.
Miller, in Virginia, says he still sees a lot of his peers living beyond their means, and that worries him.
“I hope that mentality will change to say, ‘Hey, we have to plan ahead’ because this could happen again,” he says.
But Monica Raofpur, a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Dallas, doubts the Great Recession will forever change her generation.
“People usually adapt to their surroundings and make decisions based on what is going on in the present, not in the past,” says Raofpur, a sales consultant in the tech industry.
The UCLA/San Diego State study was funded by the Russell Sage Foundation, which focuses social issues and has funded several projects related to the Great Recession.