CHICAGO — In 2008, Maria Sanchez was a full-time student at Harper College when the bottom dropped out of the economy and her world. Her parents lost their jobs, forcing the freshman to quit school to support her family.
In 1933, in the midst of the Depression, Norma Anderhous was just 8 when her father’s hours were cut back and her mom had to find work, leaving her alone to look after her younger sister in their West Side apartment.
Sanchez and Anderhous are separated in age by 60-plus years, but both have been profoundly shaped by their experiences during times of financial upheaval.
“You don’t forget,” said Anderhous, now in her mid-80s. “You may not realize it at the time, but those memories stick with you.”
A soul-searching election year is unfolding amid a historic recalibration of expectations among every generation of Americans. As Europeans are being gripped by dream-crushing austerity, hopes are also being downsized here in ways not seen since the Great Depression, defining the national mood.
For the fifth consecutive year, newly minted college graduates face a weak labor market and a painfully slow recovery. Many young adults who have found work are languishing in low-paying, no-benefit jobs that don’t require degrees. Some still live with their parents and are saddled with debt, delaying full-fledged adulthood indefinitely.
The Depression’s impact on a generation of Americans has been studied and analyzed for decades, but how the recession and its aftermath will influence the attitudes of today’s young adults over the long haul is just beginning to draw the attention of social scientists.
Some researchers think 20-somethings raised in the prosperity of the 1990s will emerge unscathed. Others say they will share a bond with their great-grandparents, who were defined by the Depression, leaving many averse to risk and famously frugal.
In both eras, the U.S. had enjoyed a run of unparalleled affluence. In 1929, the stock market crash brought heady times to an abrupt end; in 2008, the burst of the housing bubble and subsequent banking collapse plunged the country into a downward spiral.
“This is not a minor blip,” said Carl Van Horn, a professor of public policy and director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. “It will have huge defining economic and psychological impact on (young adults) for years to come.”
While the national jobless rate hovers at 8.2 percent, the rate is 8.5 percent for those younger than 25 with a college degree. A recent Rutgers survey of 444 college graduates from the classes of 2006 to 2011 found that only 51 percent had full-time employment. The rest were in school, had part-time jobs or were out of the labor force entirely.
Those employed before 2007 with a bachelor’s degree earned about $30,000 a year, while those who graduated in ’08 or later received about $27,000 annually — a decline of about 10 percent.
The lag can last a decade or longer, amounting to about one-quarter of the arc of a career, Van Horn said. Depressed salaries translate to reduced savings and less disposable income to invest, buy a home or build a nest egg, always playing catch-up to peers with better timing. The effects can linger all the way to retirement if young adults are unable to save early in their careers.
The snapshot is even gloomier for those without a college diploma.
Glen Elder, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina who has studied young adults who came of age from 1929 to 1939, sees many similarities with their 21st century counterparts: the economic expansion, the sudden contraction, the stubborn unemployment.
Despite the iconic images of bread lines and migrants, not all Depression-era families were affected equally, he explained.
“There was not just one story, but many stories, depending on your age, gender and circumstances,” said Elder, author of “Children of the Great Depression,” which is providing a baseline for scholars to examine today’s narratives.
Then, as now, those in the middle class were more insulated from the worst ravages of the new financial realities, while those on the lowest rungs of the ladder — without savings, education and social networks — were the hardest hit.
That would certainly describe Sanchez, 23, of Des Plaines, Ill. She was pursuing an associate’s degree in business when national headlines turned personal. In March 2008, the cafeteria that employed her dad shut down. Five months later, her mom, too, was pink-slipped from her manufacturing job.
At first, her parents trimmed the obvious expenses: Internet, cable, dining out. But when no more fat remained in the family budget, they turned to their daughter.
“It was hard … I really liked school,” said Sanchez, who has three younger siblings. “But if I didn’t bring in some money, we’d lose our house.”
Sanchez went to work, first making metal parts for $9 an hour, 45 hours a week, then moving to the office of a plastic bag company. “I told my parents, ‘You supported me for 18 years, so now it’s my turn.’ ”
After a four-year hiatus, Sanchez finally plans to return to Harper next month, thanks to a scholarship, and she aims to be the first in her family to graduate from college. But the recent struggles have left an indelible imprint — for instance, this time around, she’s opting to keep her full-time job and enroll in evening classes.
Also, she’s more prudent with her money, rarely going to movies, the mall or Six Flags — all regular diversions in her pre-recession life. “I know if this happened once, it could happen again.”
That skittishness was echoed by many elderly Chicago-area residents, recalling adversity with perfect clarity. Many confessed to having a complicated relationship with money, looking back on their lives and regretting their inability to spend on vacations or other indulgences. Tales of diluting dishwashing liquid or shampoo with water to make it last longer, stooping to pick up a penny on the sidewalk and smoothing out gift wrap or tinfoil were common, remaining long after the hardship of the Depression passed.
For girls, the importance of family and household emerged from the Depression as one of the strongest ideals, while for boys, it was their role as breadwinner, Elder said.
“It’s all very much connected to economic deprivation,” he said, adding that it will take about a decade before researchers can fully measure the most enduring effects of the recession.
Today, we’re in the midst of another period of “redefining of our value system,” said Alex Chernev, an associate professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
Ten years ago, everyone was an aspiring tech entrepreneur, hoping to launch a startup and sell to a venture capital firm for millions, he said. But his current crop of students is showing much more interest in the nonprofit world. “It’s less about money and more about self-expression,” Chernev said.
In the absence of a robust paycheck, Kathryn O’Malley is certainly concentrating on passion, not profession.
After getting a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2009 from Washington University in St. Louis, the 26-year-old found only dead ends. So, she stopped looking for full-time employment, jettisoned graduate school and zeroed in on her real love: food.
O’Malley runs dramaticpancake.com, a blog featuring great cooks and mouthwatering recipes and attracting 25,000 unique visitors a month.
“My mom was really skeptical … Her generation sees school and degrees as the one avenue to success,” O’Malley said. “I’m not sure I see it that way … I think a lot of us are going the route where we’re trying to be more fulfilled.”