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."
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