How the Great Recession Had (At Least Some) Positive Effects on Young People

by
Jean M. Twenge, San Diego State University
July 11, 2013

With support from our Great Recession initiative, Jean M. Twenge and Patricia Greenfield have examined whether and how young Americans' values and behaviors have changed in response to the recession. In this blog post, Professor Twenge discusses some of the main findings of their research project.

Amid the massive unemployment, widespread foreclosures, and economic pain of the Great Recession is a possible upside: More young people looking outside themselves.

In her previous research and theorizing, my co-author Patricia M. Greenfield of UCLA found that greater economic resources lead to focusing on the individual self, whereas more modest economic means lead to focusing on the community and the society as a whole. Thus, the widespread economic deprivation of the Great Recession was a natural experiment to test this theory. Dr. Greenfield’s graduate student, Heejung Park, took the lead on the project. We drew from a nationally representative sample of about half a million high school seniors – known as Monitoring the Future (MtF) – conducted annually since 1976.

For an initial look, we compared high school students’ values and behaviors in three eras: 1976-1978 (the earliest three years of the MtF survey), 2004-2006 (the recent, pre-recession era), and 2008-2010 (the recession era.) Previous research had shown that concern for others (for example, thinking about social problems and contributing to an international relief fund) and environmental concern (making an effort to save energy and help the environment) declined between the 1970s and the 2000s.

But then, during the recession years, concern for others and environmentalism increased, reversing the previous trend. Although these community-oriented views and behaviors did not return to where they were in the 1970s, just a few years of a severe recession turned around trends that had built for decades. For example, 36% of recession-era students said they were willing to take a bike or mass transit instead of driving, compared to 28% in 2004-2006 and 49% in 1976-78. Sixty-three percent of recession-era youth said they made an effort to turn the heat down at home in order to save energy, compared to 55% before the recession. Thirty percent of recession-era students said they thought about social problems quite often, up from 26% before the recession, and 43% of recession-era students said they thought it was important to “correct social and economic inequalities,” compared to 38% before the recession.

Recession-era high school students also focused less on the trappings of wealth. Compared to pre-recession students, they were less likely to say that owning a vacation house, a new car every 2-3 years, one’s own house, and a recreational vehicle was important. However, recession-era youth continued the trend toward believing it is important to have a job in which it is possible to make a great deal of money. Recession-era students were also more likely to view themselves positively, expressing more self-satisfaction and rating themselves as above average in intelligence and school ability more often than those before the recession. This continued long-term trend toward more positive self-views among younger generations (thus the title of my book, Generation Me).

In our second set of analyses, we looked at whether economic conditions over the whole time period 1976-2010 predicted concern for others, environmentalism, materialism, and positive self-views. That is, was the Great Recession unique in causing these effects, or did they also occur during previous economic recessions? For the most part, we found that the same effects did occur during previous economic recessions. High school students were more concerned for others and for the environment and less interested in owning expensive material items when the economy was struggling than when the economy was booming (measured by unemployment and median income).

Youth also had less positive self-views during previous times of economic recession, suggesting that the recent Great Recession was unique in leading to more, rather than less, positive self-views. As Greenfield and her colleagues have suggested, new technology is another cultural influence affecting youth, and may have led to the continued increase in positive self-views.

Overall, the results support Greenfield’s theory: When money is tight, people are more likely to look outside themselves and want to help their communities and the environment. The silver lining of economic recessions may be more community-oriented views and behaviors. It’s yet another piece of the puzzle in how cultural change creates generational change.

JEAN M. TWENGE, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, is the author of Generation Me and

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