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 said. 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 a while, 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 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,” said Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University who co-authored the study with researchers from University of California, Los Angeles.
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 2008-10, 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.
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,” said Greenfield, another of the study’s contributors, along with lead author Heejung Park, an advanced doctoral student in psychology at UCLA.
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 said, 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 said.
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 said 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 said, 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,” said 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 said, 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 said, 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 said.
Kenworthy said this recession might impact young people more because they tend to be more impressionable than their elders. But he said a lot will hinge on how long the economic downturn lasts – and how deeply they feel the pain.
Miller, in Virginia, said 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 said.
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,” said Raofpur, a sales consultant in the tech industry.