STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Coming of age during the Great Recession changed how kids view the world

We are all products of our experiences, and for today's young people, the Great Recession was one they may never forget. 

In a paper first published in 2013, researchers tried to figure out how the recession changed attitudes among kids who were high school seniors between 2008 and 2010. The paper (which you can read in full here) found that kids graduating high school during the recession were more concerned about inequality and environmental issues than kids who graduated before. They were also less concerned with gaining material wealth. 
The study looked at responses from a long-running, nationally-representative survey of high school seniors in the U.S.,known as the Monitoring the Future survey. Researchers looked at responses to the survey dating back to the 1970s. Their paper notes that, since that time, the trend has been for young people to take a more individualistic stance on social issues, including the idea that "people get what they deserve and thus are responsible for their misfortunes." 
But living through the Great Recession seems to have changed young people. 

Kids who were high school seniors from 2008 to 2010 felt more strongly that inequalities in society need to be corrected. The authors of the paper calculate about an 8% increase in caring about that issue. Kids placed about 9% more importance on the need to "think about social issues" in general. 

Perhaps unrelated to the recession, but still important, is the increasing value these high school seniors place on environmental concerns. Recent high school seniors are more likely to support government action on environmental issues. They're also more likely to see the importance of their own actions, particularly when it comes to their own energy usage. 
The paper also finds some pretty substantial drops in materialistic concerns. For example, kids placed about 10% less importance on "owning expensive items" during the recession years. 
This pattern has shown up before, during previous economic downturns. As the authors note: 

During the Great Recession, adolescents show consistent evidence for increasing collectivism (concern for others and environmentalism) and some indication for decreasing or leveling individualism (materialism). The effect of economic depression on adolescent values is not isolated to the current recession but occurs systematically, with collectivism higher during times of economic deprivation and some indicators of individualism higher during times of economic prosperity.

Kids who lived through the latest recession undoubtedly endured some hardships. Childhood poverty rose during that time. Some of the consequences may last a lifetime. 

Here, at least, is one possible silver lining. Kids who endure a downturn are more likely to come out the other end thinking less about themselves, and more about their role in society.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.