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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Research: Recession Grads May Wind Up Happier in the Long Run 12-06

Research: Recession Grads May Wind Up Happier in the Long Run

Market in a generation. Hiring for new college graduates had dropped 35 to 40 percent in only a year. Hiring for new PhDs, lawyers, architects, and journalists had plummeted as well. Even new graduates who managed to secure work often accepted jobs that did not require a college or graduate degree, and they typically earned substantially less than they would have if they had left school two years earlier.

Their long-term employment outlook was similarly grim. People who graduate in recessions often earn less money and hold less prestigious jobs even decades after they leave school. In short, their careers seemed compromised before they really began.
Despite these suboptimal beginnings, is it possible that these graduates might actually be happier with their jobs? Decades of psychological research has shown that how people feel about outcomes does not always mirror the objective value of these outcomes.  Rather, people can be happier with less, depending on how they think about what they have. 

For instance, Victoria Medvec and colleagues famously showed that athletes who won silver medals at the Olympics were less satisfied with their results than those who won bronze. Clearly the silver medalists performed better, yet they felt worse. Why? Silver medalists were more likely to agonize over whether a faster stroke or a smaller splash might have earned them a gold. This fixation on how they might have done better often dampened their satisfaction with what they had accomplished.
Bronze medalists, on the other hand, tended to be relieved to be on the podium at all. For them, the salient alternative was fourth place, a result that would have sent them home unadorned. Thus, rather than stewing over how they could have done better, these athletes derived satisfaction from what they had achieved.
Could similar mental calculations be working in favor of recession graduates? To evaluate this possibility empirically, I analyzed data from two very large government-run surveys that have been administered regularly since the 1970s. This enabled me to isolate the unique effects of graduating in a recession apart from cohort, life stage, and period effects.
A consistent story emerged across both datasets. People who earned their college or graduate degrees during economic downturns were significantly more satisfied with their current jobs than those who earned their degrees in more prosperous times. These effects could not be explained by industry or occupational choices, generational differences, or differences in career trajectories.
In subsequent studies, I found that much like bronze medalists, these graduates spent little time ruminating over how they might have done better and tended to be grateful to have a job at all. Those who graduated during more prosperous times, however, looked at their current jobs differently. 

Rather than revel in their good fortune, these graduates tended to wonder if they could have or should have done better. Much like silver medalists, they were more likely to be plagued by regret, second-guessing, and what ifs.
What surprised me most about these findings was how long these effects endured. Recession graduates were typically happier with their jobs even decades after receiving their diplomas – and even after markets stabilized, recessions slowed, and hiring ramped up. 

The difficult and often demoralizing conditions of their early working lives seemed to shape positively how they thought about and evaluated later work environments. This is consistent with recent research in psychology which shows that some lifetime adversity is associated with greater happiness than either too much or too little. Too much adversity can be emotionally debilitating. Too little can weaken resilience, allowing people to magnify and exaggerate the bumps of everyday life.
Most well-educated recession graduates ultimately find jobs. In fact, their likelihood of being employed several years out of school is no different than their boom-time peers. For these graduates, entering the working world during a recession may pose enough adversity to promote positive subjective evaluations, but not so much that it permanently discolors their outlook on work. Ultimately, they may not wind up with prestigious, high-paying jobs. But they may be happier than those who do.
We often think that how people feel about their jobs depends both on the features of these jobs and the features of the person. A large body of research has shown that people are happier in jobs when they have autonomy over how the work is done and when they have generally positive, optimistic dispositions. 

But the current findings suggest that strong experiences at an impressionable time of life can also influence how people think about and evaluate their work. It is also suggests that we might want to think differently about the crop of graduates that entered the workforce during the Great Recession.

 Much of the academic work suggesting that young adults are more entitled and arrogant than ever before was conducted before the Great Recession. It may be that these more recent graduates are more grateful and less entitled than we might expect.