Recession led teens to focus more on social problems, environment

During the Great Recession, high school students in the U.S. became more concerned about others and the environment, psychologists at UCLA and San Diego State University report in a new study.

The research, published July 11 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, focused on survey data collected on high school seniors during three time periods: the global recession (2008-10), just before the recession (2004-06) and the earliest period for which data were available (1976-78).

The study authors found that high school students’ concern for others declined significantly between 1976-78 and 2004-06, then rebounded by the period of the Great Recession. Compared with high school students who graduated in the years just before the recession, students who graduated during the recession were more concerned for others, more interested in social issues and more interested in saving energy and helping the environment.

For example, 63 percent of recession-era 12th graders said they made an effort to turn down the heat at home to save energy, compared with 55 percent in the pre-recession period; 30 percent of recession-era students said they thought often about social problems, compared with 26 percent of pre-recession students; and 36 percent said they would be willing to use a bicycle or mass transit to get to work, up from 28 percent just before the recession.

“This is the silver lining of the Great Recession,” said Patricia Greenfield, distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA and senior author of the study. “These findings are consistent with my theory that fewer economic resources lead to more concern for others and the community. It is a change very much needed by our society.”

The research was based on an analysis of data from Monitoring the Future, a survey of a representative sample of U.S. high school seniors conducted between 1976 and 2010 in which students were asked about a variety of issues. The current study focused on their answers to questions related to concern for others and the environment, as well as those related to the importance of money and materialism. The study authors also analyzed whether the high school seniors believed they were more intelligent than average.

They found that recession-era high school students were more likely to think they were smarter than their peers, and they were more satisfied with themselves — the recession did not reverse the overall long-term trend toward young people having a more inflated sense of self, the researchers said.

Other analyses by the team found that high school students’ positive self-views had decreased during previous recessions but not during the recent recession.

“In the past, recessions led to less positive self-views. The recent recession is the only one that produced an increase,” said co-author Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before.”

That finding suggests other factors in the culture may be at work, such as technology and a “focus on fame,” said UCLA’s Greenfield, director of the Children’s Digital Media Center @ Los Angeles.

Compared with pre-recession high school students, recession-era students were less likely to believe it important to own expensive products and luxury items. However, recession-era students continued the long-term trend of believing earning a lot of money is important.

The lead author of the study was Heejung Park, a UCLA a doctoral candidate in psychology, whose research reveals how social change affects human development.

The research was funded by Russell Sage Foundation as part of a major initiative to assess the effects of the Great Recession on the economic, political and social life of the country.

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