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Drew Miller, poses for a photograph, at a building under construction, Wednesday, July 10, 2013 in Silver Spring, Md. Miller quit a steady government contract job to take a chance on a company that's using "smart technologies" to help big corporations cut lighting costs. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Study: Youth attitudes shift in Great Recession
First Published Jul 11 2013 09:51 am • Last Updated Aug 06 2013 02:06 pm

Drew Miller clearly remembers the day his father was laid off.

Miller, now 25, was a freshman at an Ohio college, full of hope and ready to take on the world. But here was this "red flag ... a big wake-up call," he says. The prosperous years of childhood were over, and his future was likely to be bumpier than he’d expected.

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Across the country, others of Miller’s generation heard that same wake-up call as the Great Recession set in. But would it change them? And would the impact last?

The full effect won’t be known for a while, of course. But a new analysis of a long-term survey of high school students provides an early glimpse at ways their attitudes shifted in the first years of this most recent economic downturn.

Among the findings: Young people showed signs of being more interested in conserving resources and a bit more concerned about their fellow human beings.

Compared with youths who were surveyed a few years before the recession hit, more of the Great Recession group also was less interested in big-ticket items such as vacation homes and new cars — though they still placed more importance on them than young people who were surveyed in the latter half of the 1970s, an era with its own economic challenges.

Either way, it appears this latest recession "has caused a lot of young people to stop in their tracks and think about what’s important in life," says Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University who co-authored the study with researchers from UCLA.

The analysis, released Thursday, is published in the online edition of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Its data comes from "Monitoring the Future," an annual survey of young people that began in the mid-1970s. The authors of the study compared responses of high school seniors from three time periods — 1976-1978 and 2004-2006, as well as 2008-2010, the first years of the Great Recession.

They found that at the beginning of this latest recession, more of the 12th-graders were willing to use a bicycle or mass transit instead of driving — 36 percent in 2008-2010, compared with 28 percent in the mid-2000s. However, that was still markedly lower than the 49 percent of respondents in the 1970s group who said the same.


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There were similar patterns for other responses, such as those who said they:

—Make an effort to turn heat down to save energy: 78 percent (1976-1978); 55 percent (2004-2006); and 63 percent (2008-2010).

—Want a job directly helpful to others: 50 percent (1976-1978); 44 percent (2004-2006); and 47 percent (2008-2010).

—Would eat differently to help the starving: 70 percent (1976-1978); 58 percent (2004-2006); and 61 percent (2008-2010).

Psychologist Patricia Greenfield said the findings fit with other research she’s done that shows that people become more community-minded, and less materialistic, when faced with economic hardship.

"To me, it’s a silver lining," says Greenfield, another of the study’s contributors, along with lead author Heejung Park, an advanced doctoral student in psychology at UCLA.

Their analysis found that, of the three groups, the Great Recession group was still most likely to want jobs where they could make a "significant" amount of money. But the authors say that may simply be attributable to the ever-rising cost of day-to-day expenses, from groceries to electric and gas bills.

In comparison, they note that the Great Recession group also showed a bit less interest in luxury items than the students who were surveyed in the mid-2000s.

For instance, 41 percent of high school seniors questioned 2008-2010 said it was important to own a vacation home, compared with 46 percent in 2004-2006. Again, both percentages are higher than the 34 percent who said the same in 1976-1978.

These findings have a margin of error of plus-or-minus 1 percentage point, or less.

Tina Wells, CEO of Buzz Marketing Group, which tracks youth trends, says the analysis fits with what she’s seen in her own work.

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