“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 .)
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.