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Recession's Silver Lining

New research from SDSU and UCLA shows that high school students became more concerned for others and the environment during the recession.

During the Great Recession, high school students became more concerned about others and the environment, psychologists at San Diego State University and University of California, Los Angeles report today.

Concern for others declined significantly between the mid-1970s and 2004-2006, then rebounded between that pre-recession period and the Great Recession in 2008-2010.

Compared to high school students in the pre-recession years, students who graduated from high school during the recent recession were more concerned for others, more interested in social issues and more interested in saving energy and helping the environment.

Comparing Generations


Sixty-three percent of recession-era 12th graders said they made an effort to turn down the heat at home to save energy, compared to 55 percent before the recession. Thirty percent of recession-era 12th graders said they thought often about social problems, compared to 26 percent pre-recession. Thirty-six percent said they would be willing to use a bicycle or mass transit to get to work, up from 28 percent before the recession.

"Although young people's concern for others and for the environment is still lower than it was in the 1970s, the recession has apparently led youth to focus more on others compared to the economic boom times of the mid-2000s." said Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at SDSU and the author of “Generation Me.”

"Amidst all of the suffering caused by the recession, there may be positive benefits to society if more Americans are looking outside themselves.”  

Decades of data

The research, published July 11 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, is based on an analysis of data from “Monitoring the Future,” a nationally representative sample of U.S. high school seniors collected between 1976 and 2010.

The researchers selected three time periods for their analysis: Twelfth-graders from before the Great Recession (2004 to 2006), during the recession (2008 to 2010) and from the earliest period available (1976 to 1978).

Silver lining

“This is the silver lining of the Great Recession,” said Patricia Greenfield, a UCLA distinguished professor of psychology.

“These findings are consistent with my theory that fewer economic resources lead to more concern for others and the community. It is a change very much needed by our society.”

The researchers focused on the teens’ answers to questions related to concern for others and the environment and questions related to the importance of money and materialism. They also analyzed whether the high school seniors believed they were more intelligent than average.

The recession-era high school students were more likely to think they were smarter than their peers and more satisfied with themselves; the recession did not reverse the long-term trend toward young people having a more inflated sense of self. Other analyses found that high school students’ positive self-views decreased during previous recessions, but not during the recent recession.

“In the past, recessions led to less positive self-views; the recent recession is the only one that produced an increase,” Twenge said.

Other factors at play

That finding suggests other factors in the culture may be at work, such as technology and a “focus on fame,” said Greenfield, director of the Children's Digital Media Center, Los Angeles.

Compared to pre-recession high school students, recession-era high school students were less likely to believe it is important to own expensive products and luxury items. However, recession-era students continued the long-term trend of believing earning a lot of money is important.

The lead author of the study is Heejung Park, a UCLA Ph.D. candidate in psychology, whose research reveals how social change affects human development.

The research was funded by Russell Sage Foundation as part of a major initiative to assess the effects of the Great Recession on the economic, political and social life of the country.

The Russell Sage Foundation is the principal American foundation devoted exclusively to research in the social sciences. Located in New York City, it is a research center, a funding source for studies by scholars at other academic and research institutions and an active member of the nation's social science community. The foundation also publishes, under its own imprint, the books that derive from the work of its grantees and visiting scholars.

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