Recession Kids: How the Economic Downturn Has Scarred Gen Y

Collective wisdom.
Dec. 1 2011 4:16 PM

The Recession Kids Grow Up

How the economic downturn has shaped Generation Y.

Peter Fulham
Peter Fulham (Photo by Daniel Fulham).

“Every generation thinks it's special,” an 18-year-old Joyce Maynard wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 1972. “My grandparents because they remember horses and buggies, my parents because of the Depression. The over-30s are special because they knew the Red Scare of Korea, Chuck Berry and beatniks. My older sister is special because she belonged to the first generation of teen-agers … when being a teen-ager was still fun. And I—I am 18, caught in the middle. Mine is the generation of unfulfilled expectations.”

Maynard was attempting to capture the mood of the baby boomers, a group she concluded was constantly arriving late to the party. By the time her friends were old enough to wear lipstick, nobody was wearing it anymore. By the time she was old enough to dance like Chubby Checker on American Bandstand, people had abandoned the Twist in favor of sitting around smoking marijuana. It was a group, she concluded, that grew up trusting the sincerity of the American system, only to have this trust betrayed by Watergate and the tragedy of Vietnam.

My own generation is different from the generation of baby boomer parents who raised us, in ways that have been chronicled exhaustively by hordes of eager journalists and social commentators. (Have you heard the news? People my age spend too much time on our cellphones!) But it’s safe to say that young Americans and their parents share at least one of the experiences Maynard describes so memorably: an erosion of trust in the system.


Here’s an embarrassing revelation: Before the financial crisis of 2008, as a high school student, I thought, at least subconsciously, that there were groups of responsible people who worked in well-lit rooms every day and made sure the nation ran smoothly—that the metro came and went on time, that the air never became too polluted, that banks made only responsible loans.

I followed the news closely enough in high school to remember when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke stood in front of Congress in 2007 and said, “At this juncture … the impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime markets seems likely to be contained.” How could Bernanke, the Princeton professor and the economic expert, be wrong?

But Bernanke was wrong, of course, and the realization of Bernanke’s wrongness, as the scale of the financial crisis became clear, dispelled any illusions I had about American superiority—and my own security as a citizen. If Bernanke, who spent the better part of his life studying the Great Depression, had been mistaken about this crisis, who could be right? There was no benevolent bureaucracy, I concluded, no studious men and women in a room looking out for all of us. We were on our own, and, in many ways, we still are.

It took a while for all of this to sink in. Where I went to high school, on the day Lehman Bros. filed for bankruptcy, I remember everyone still played Frisbee on the front lawn. There was no panic in the hallways. We all still went to sports practice in the afternoons after class. It was easy for us to ignore our circumstances then, but as we inch closer to college graduation, one unpleasant reality hits hard: Young Americans will likely bear the heaviest burdens of the Great Recession, and bear them not just today, but for decades to come.

The numbers are sobering. In 2011, 4.1 million Americans aged 16-24 were unemployed, bringing the unemployment rate for our demographic to 18.3 percent. That’s double the general unemployment rate of 9.1 percent. Minorities have been hit even harder. Young Hispanic Americans have an unemployment rate of 20.1 percent. For young black people, that number is a staggering 31 percent. The jobs we don’t get today will mean later starts to our careers, and lower salaries for the rest of our lives.

The recession has taken away job opportunities for us, and  it’s also changed the kind of jobs we want. In 2007, 47 percent of the graduating class at Harvard planned to enter either finance or consulting professions, according to a survey published by the university newspaper, the Crimson. In 2011, that number fell to 21.7 percent. Finance has traditionally been the most popular field for Harvard alums, but in 2011, education surpassed Wall Street as the most common choice for graduates.

There’s a chance we’ve become more idealistic than the students who came before us, choosing to enter programs like Teach for America instead of reaching for jobs at investment banks. It’s worth noting, however, that some of this idealism may be encouraged by another stark reality: In the financial sector, the job losses have been relentless since the crisis of 2008.

At least among my friends, one of the casualties of the Great Recession is the allure of investment banking. It’s tougher to get a job in the field, but it’s also more difficult to justify the profession as a way to spend one’s adult life. None of us needed a degree in finance to recognize the havoc that American banks inflicted on the country. Few of us want to play for that team, and, at least for now, we aren’t running toward Wall Street in the same way our parents did.

Perhaps it’s too early to say, but the silver lining of the economic downturn could be that people my age will continue to aspire to the jobs they wanted when they were younger. I hope so. I hope we’ll become workers, teachers, inventors, entrepreneurs, activists, writers. In other words, I hope we’ll become people who actually make things.

Predicting the future can be dangerous, so I think I would be ill-advised to take a guess at how we’ll all turn out after—and if—this economic storm passes. What is clear, however, is that the challenges our generation must overcome are immense. We can’t afford to be kids for much longer. And I hope it’s not too much of a leap to say that when we have families of our own, we’ll make sure we’re not providing for our children on the backs of others.



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