SANFORD, Fla.—Seventeen-year-old Contessa Skelton learned that her mother had lost her job—for the second time in two years—as they stood in the parking lot outside her dentist’s office.
Her mom told her the bad news. Together, they cried a little. “I was shocked,” Tessa says, about one year later. “I didn’t know what to think at first.”
Her mother assured her that everything would be OK. Still, it was hard for Tessa to believe that after her mother’s employer, Remington Colleges, had given her all of one hour to clean out her desk—along with just a week of severance pay. Her mother had lost her previous, long-standing job at GE Capital less than two years earlier.
The unemployment rate in Florida that July 2011 still hovered above 10 percent. No one was having an easy time getting or keeping a stable, well-paying job, even people who had a college degree or had worked for a major corporation.
High school had already been a rocky time, financially and socially, for Tessa. She had learned to watch her money constantly, incessantly even, thanks to her mom’s bouts with unemployment. Did she have enough for gas? What about lunch, if she wanted to go off campus for pizza with her friends? She also needed money for a swim-team uniform and dues for dance competitions. And that summer, just before her senior year, the expenses of applying to college loomed large. If college was a ticket to prosperity, then just getting in line to get in—paying for the SATs and sending in applications—cost hundreds of dollars.
Tessa already worked 20-plus hours a week at a pizza place called Hungry Howie’s, where she made pies, took orders over the phone, and worked the register for $7.85 an hour. Now, she’d need to keep up her hours (along with her grades) during her senior year if she wanted any pocket money. For someone from her solidly middle-class background, it was a weird feeling to worry so much about money.
Yet, Tessa’s story is hardly a unique coming-of-age moment. At the height of the economic crisis, in 2010, more than 8 million children and teenagers in the United States lived with an unemployed parent, according to the Brookings Institution. That’s one of every nine kids, living in the shadow of the most severe wave of job losses since the Great Depression.
Their experiences and worldviews, although still coming into focus, are part of the trickle-down effect of the jobless recovery. The Obama administration says that the economy is slowly improving, and unemployment has fallen below 8 percent; but for many children and teens of jobless parents, the experience of the Great Recession lives on and will probably stay with them for years.
“We need to think of this recession as a two-generation phenomenon. We focus on tracking job losses with the parent generation, but you rarely think about what will happen to the kids,” says Ariel Kalil, a psychology professor at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago.
For Tessa, the financial stress was something she didn’t like to discuss with her peers. In fact, she felt like she couldn’t even relate to one of her oldest pals (whom she had known since they were 4) during the months when her mom was unemployed and they lived on $275 a week in unemployment benefits, occasional checks from family members, and free food from local pantries. Tessa used her own money for gasoline, school fees, clothing, and anything else she needed, while her mom ran through her savings and took out a home-equity loan.
“I always keep hope and keep fighting.... I know if I stick to it, I can achieve greatness.”—Dasia Isom, 17
“I separated myself from friends who cared more about popularity and who were flaky,” Tessa says. “Lots of their parents just give them money.”
The gulf between her life and her classmates’ seemed particularly stark, she says, when she wanted to join a school club known for its parties and formal events. “You had to dress up for all of them,” Tessa remembers. She didn’t have enough money for the dues or the outfits. “Even $5 is a lot right now,” she says. “I probably lost friends.”
The three years of high school when her mom was in and out of work did build her character, Tessa is quick to say. She’s more careful with money now—grateful for what she owns and what she has accomplished. She and her mom remain close. (Her dad, who offers little financial support, lives in Tennessee.)
But the tough times also radically shifted the way she thinks about her finances, career, goals, and friendships. Today, there’s an entire generation of young people who have watched their parents get laid off, accept lower-paying jobs, move around for work, and, in some cases, lose their homes.
Economists, sociologists, and politicians know little about this group in real time; their knowledge is limited to what they can extrapolate from research and anecdotes from previous recessions. And young people like Tessa are only now starting to realize that their families’ long brushes with unemployment have made them different than others.
“I have a feeling that these kids will always be identifiable as the kids of parents who faced these problems,” says Ann Huff Stevens, an economics professor and the director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of California (Davis). “Even if we do get the recovery going, the effects have already happened to the kids, and from what we know, these effects can be pretty substantial and negative.”
CAUGHT IN A RIPTIDE
Members of this shadow generation have already started out their young-adult lives with a distinct disadvantage, especially if their parents did not have a college degree or were already struggling to stay within striking distance of the middle class. Children of the unemployed are 15 percent more likely to repeat a grade than their peers whose parents held on to stable jobs, a 2009 study by Stevens and economist Jessamyn Schaller found. They are more likely to live with adults whose health is affected by a job loss. Life expectancy drops by 12 to 18 months for people who are unemployed for a long stretch of time, according to a study by economist Till Marco von Wachter and Daniel Sullivan, the director of research and an executive vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
Worse, their families may never recover financially; even 15 to 20 years later, losing a job can translate to as much as $140,000 less in lifetime wages, according to a 2009 paper by von Wachter, Jae Song, and Joyce Manchester. For many families, a job loss also nudges them into poverty. From August 2008 to August 2009, Brookings reports that the number of children on food stamps jumped by 3.4 million.
Adulthood doesn’t necessarily offer relief, either, for the children of the unemployed: They tend to have a hard time in the job market. A 2005 study showed that children whose fathers lost a job during the recession in the early 1980s earned 9 percent less in wages during their lifetimes than children whose parents held on to their jobs. They were also more likely to end up on unemployment or some form of social assistance as adults.
The research says nothing, however, about the emotional trauma that comes from a parent losing work in a bleak economic climate: the possibility that the family may be forced to move; the lack of resources to invest in education; and, in the short run, the amount of quality time that overstressed parents can spend with their children.
Many parents who lose their jobs—particularly fathers, Kalil says—also experience an identity crisis about their role in the family, especially if they are unable to earn money for a long period.
Such below-the-surface issues are hard to identify, sitting as they do at a squishy intersection of economic policy, the labor market, and private family dynamics. “The question is whether these are knowable things,” says Schaller, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Arizona. “If we know your parents losing their jobs makes you more likely to drop out of high school, what we don’t know is why. Is it stress, or health outcomes, or other things going on in families?”
These factors, even if they are hard to sort out, put the children of the unemployed at risk of falling behind their peers at a time when the gap between the lower and upper incomes in American society continues to widen. It puts teens like Tessa at a disadvantage before they’ve even had the chance to prove themselves in college or the workplace, regardless of the tough life lessons that their parents’ unemployment imparted to them.
“My biggest thing that I learned was how much you rely on little things you don’t really notice,” Tessa says.
Few teenagers understand the daily life of the unemployed better than 17-year-old Dasia Isom, who lives it at work and at home.
By day, she answers phones at one of FloridaWorks’ employment centers, a brightly painted, low-slung building off Highway 25 in Gainesville, Fla., where unemployed people receive job counseling and training and get the chance to use the center’s free computers.
By night, Dasia returns to the home she shares with her 11-year-old sister and her mother, who has been out of a job for a few months. Her mom lost her position as a home health care aide, Dasia says, after she hurt her back lifting an elderly patient and could no longer report to work.
For now, the family lives on unemployment benefits, food stamps, and help from her aunt in paying the utility bill. Dasia and her mother share a cell phone to keep the costs low. Dasia tries to help out financially with the $7.57 an hour she earns, but her mom often refuses the cash. “She always tells me the bills are her responsibility.”
Dasia and I first connected over the phone in early July. She had just graduated from high school and harbored big plans. She wanted to enroll in community college to keep her education costs minimal. Then, eventually, she said, she wanted to join the Air Force, attend medical school on the military’s dime, and work as a doctor on an Air Force base or on the front lines—a future she envisioned as both helpful to society and stable. “I could do 20 years until retirement and still get out when I’m 37,” she said then.
During our conversation, she sounded chipper, idealistic, and practical, even though her mother could not find work and her father was serving time in prison. She’d learned lessons from all of this, she said, especially the importance of earning a college degree and starting early to think about a real career: lessons reinforced every hour she sat at the reception desk at the unemployment office.
“It just makes me want to get on with my life and further my education, so I don’t have to go through the same thing,” she says. “The more education people have, the easier is it to get jobs.”
This tracks with the employment data about the Great Recession. Although the overall jobless rate remains high (higher than any politician would like), education marks a clear dividing line. People without college degrees suffer from an unemployment rate twice as high as those with bachelor’s degrees, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In August, I traveled to Florida to meet Tessa and Dasia in person. Dasia greeted me at the front desk of FloridaWorks; she wore neatly pressed mustard-colored pants and a bright ruffled top; the ends of her hair were curled.
We sat in an office to catch up, where Dasia again talked about her plans for community college and the Air Force. She was doing OK with money, too. Since she was 14, she has worked some type of after-school or seasonal job, socking away half of each paycheck and opting for free activities (such as going to the community pool or basketball games with friends). Her mother was still looking for a job and planned to go back to school in the fall to further her nursing career.
But Dasia revealed a development, a serious one, that she hadn’t when we first talked. Minutes into our conversation, she told me she was pregnant. It had been an unplanned result of her relationship with her on-again, off-again boyfriend from middle school.
She said she was due in late November. Her 38-year-old mother was not happy. “I guess she was disappointed because I’m kind of young. She wishes that I waited until I was more stable in life and got to do more, but eventually, she came around,” Dasia says.
She seemed excited and a little unsure about the baby, yet also adamant that being a mother would not change the career trajectory she had carefully planned. Infant and all, Dasia said, she could still earn her bachelor’s degree and join the military—even with her boyfriend, child, and mom as baby sitter in tow.
“It’s easy for people to say things and not stick to them. I have a plan to better myself and my life,” she said that day, as rain from a late-summer thunderstorm pelted the office windows.
Dasia gave me a tour of the career center, with its help-wanted ads and cubicles of job counselors. Isn’t it depressing coming to work every day, surrounded by so many people who are struggling, I asked?
Dasia thought for a second and leaned against the wall, with her baby bump slightly protruding. “No, it’s not depressing,” she says. “A lot of people come in on their own will. Some people just really need help.”
LESSONS FROM THE PAST
So little is known about this new shadow generation, in part because the economic and sociological data just haven’t kept pace. Most of the information about children of the unemployed is based on data from the 1980s—the last big post-industrial economic downturn.
That’s when a 29-year-old single mother named Kathryn Crumpton lost her job as a social worker in central Minnesota after a grant that funded her organization ran out. With jobs scarce in the area and with no child support from her daughter’s father, Crumpton and her 7-year-old daughter moved in with her parents. “We would have honestly been homeless during that time period if my parents hadn’t been able to provide a place for us to live,” she remembers.
Crumpton took a job selling insurance on commission for Prudential. She worked nights, while her parents watched her daughter. It took more than four years for the family to financially recover from the hit—to move into their own home and for Crumpton to find a better-paying job in a different field at a savings and loan.
Her daughter, now the mother of two, didn’t want to talk on the record for this story. But Crumpton recalls that, at the time, her child “didn’t seem to realize the extent of what was going on—that her mom was unemployed and hanging out.”
Yet, the lessons from that 1980s recession shaped the family’s dynamic for years to come, as it could with Tessa and Dasia. Crumpton urged her daughter to work throughout college so she could avoid taking on student loans. She encouraged her to study science rather than social work or liberal arts, thinking that would give her daughter a more stable career path. Now, her daughter works in Wisconsin as a lab supervisor; she’s been there for 15 years since graduating with a biology degree in 1997.
Crumpton still remembers that tough period of her life, even though she remarried in 1990; moved to Wisconsin; and now holds a stable job as a manager at the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Milwaukee, where she runs daily operations, writes a blog, and gives workshops on managing money.
“It was scary. I remember feeling awful,” she says about that time. “I’ve always taught my daughter to be a saver, because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Crumpton’s story ultimately took a better turn, but her experience wasn’t unusual, then or now. The current crisis has forced young people to move back home with their parents, accept dead-end jobs, and postpone major life decisions such as getting married, having children, or buying a home, according to polling by the Pew Research Center.
How long this generation, waylaid by the Great Recession, will continue to struggle and whether the experience will leave these young people more resilient or more vulnerable economically are unknowns for now.
In 2004, according to Pew data, 56 percent of unemployed 18-to-34-year-olds said they did not have enough income to lead the life they wanted. By 2011, that number jumped to 80 percent.
Many of the young people surveyed had shifted their attitudes after the economic downturn. They believed in 2011, for instance, that their success depended more on luck than on their own effort. They expressed less confidence in big institutions, particularly Congress and the presidency, and they supported more government moves to redistribute wealth (a policy fight that’s playing out on the presidential campaign trail).
Still, the teenagers and twentysomethings Pew surveyed also remained optimistic about their prospects—perhaps naively so. Even last year, they assumed that, at some point, their careers and economic issues would work out—as they did for Crumpton.
Although many of the young adults took jobs outside of their chosen career or moved back into childhood bedrooms, Pew found, the majority believed that this economic setback would right itself, like a sailboat emerging from a storm.
Eighty-eight percent of 18-to-34-year-olds surveyed by Pew in February 2012 said they either earned enough money now or would earn enough in the future. Just 9 percent said they thought they would never make enough to create the life they wanted. That level of optimism was unchanged since a similar Pew study in 2004—meaning that the Great Recession hasn’t killed the shadow generation’s long-term outlook, even if it did generate clouds on the immediate horizon.
In these young people’s minds, it is only a matter of when their big economic break will occur, as if there is a magical tipping point when their lives will prosper. This despite a present that has left many without a proper education, skills, or training.
As Dasia said from the career center: “I always keep hope and keep fighting.... I know if I stick to it, I can achieve greatness.”
A BRIGHTER DAY
On a steamy afternoon in August, Tessa and her mom, Lisa Lee, sat at their dining-room table, drinking tall mugs of coffee and picking at a plate of brownies. The living room in their one-story ranch was sparsely decorated with a leather couch, a coffee table, a flat-screen TV, and lots of family pictures. In one photo, the two look like sisters sitting on a beach with shorts, tank tops, and long, brown hair.
In about a week and a half, Tessa was to leave for Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, about a three-hour drive, and Lee grows teary as she talks about her daughter going away for college. The only reason that Tessa is even able to attend school is Lee’s financial discipline. Years ago, Lee prepaid the tuition through a program available to Florida residents whose children planned to go to state colleges or universities.
With the departure fast approaching, the two have spent the last few weeks prepping. Tessa’s aunt, a doctor in Miami, gave her a laptop. She purchased a rug and two lamps for her dorm room at a yard sale.
Lee has found a new job at a financial-services company. Tessa is starting fresh at school. Only now does it seem that the two can reflect clearly on the past three “roller-coaster” years, as Lee calls them.
She knows that her stretch of unemployment affected Tessa. “She was old enough to have a grasp on my reality, and my reality really did impact her, but certain things couldn’t be avoided,” Lee says. Now she wants her daughter to tell her how she felt through it all. “I know because I know you, but I never heard you say specifically how you were impacted,” Lee says to her daughter.
Tessa, quiet throughout the conversation, thinks before speaking.
“I feel like I learned a lot—that’s the best thing I can say,” she says. “I learned to watch my money. I learned how much you rely on little things that you don’t really notice, and I humbled myself a lot, too,” she adds, remembering the time she borrowed a dress, shoes, and jewelry from friends so she could go to her senior-year homecoming dance.
Like Dasia’s, Tessa’s experience as a child of unemployment has altered the way she views her own future. She’s optimistic, for sure, but immensely practical. Rather than study a liberal-arts field such as history or English, or dream of becoming an anthropologist or playwright, Tessa plans to pick a major to advance her career path. Right now, she’s interested in becoming a pharmacist, because she knows that the health care sector is expected to grow.
“Whenever I think about what I want to do, I consider that, because the economy isn’t what it should be,” she says. “I always look into how stable the job should be. Anything in the medical field is pretty stable.” She also plans to study Spanish to get an extra competitive edge in Florida, a state with a large Spanish-speaking population.
Most of all, what she wants is stability—much the way the children of the Great Depression plotted lives built on secure jobs and fat savings accounts. She’s a little envious of her friends who went through high school without any money cares, and of the classmate who got a Camaro for her birthday. “It’s not like they have everything,” she says, “but they’re comfortable.”
That’s what Tessa wants for her future. Her career doesn’t have to be fancy or hugely entrepreneurial or creative or bold—it doesn’t even have to make her rich. Tessa just wants her life to be stable, even though she yearns for that at a time when the fast pace of the global economy offers no such assurances and when the prospect of working at the same company for 50 years no longer exists.
“I don’t need tons of money,” Tessa says as the sun starts to set and the living room grows dark. “I don’t need a new house. I just want to be comfortable. I don’t want money to be a stress, and it is a stress when you’re tight on money. It changes things.”
This story appeared in the print edition of National Journal under the headline "A Generation in Shadow."