Study: Student career paths altered by hardship

A new survey of high school students, done A new survey of high school students, done by California-based researchers, reveals that the impact of the recession "has caused a lot of young people to stop in their tracks and think about whats important in life." Photo Credit: iStock

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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 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 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.

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The analysis, released last week, 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 was a similar pattern for those who said they want a job directly helpful to others: 50 percent (1976-1978); 44 percent (2004-2006); and 47 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.

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.

Though it meant taking a small pay cut, he says having a job that helps the environment was a "huge" motivator.

Miller 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.

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