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."