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Study finds Great Recession altered student priorities

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When the economy tanked five years ago, it left a lasting impression on the outlook of those just getting out of high school, and a new study of high school students find their priorities are different now.

The Monitoring the Future survey, which has polled high school students every year since the 1970s, suggests students are more concerned with saving energy, helping others and finding stable professions.

The impact of the economic crash in 2008 may have influenced teens permanently in much the same way the Great Depression affected that generation.

Researchers at San Diego State University and the University of California in Los Angeles took a look at the numbers and compared them with responses from high school seniors from just a couple years ago during the height of the Great Recession.

Next, they compared that data to the results from students surveyed in another recession in the mid-to-late 70s. When they compared those results with more recent surveys conducted in the mid-2000s, they discovered students who had been influenced by the recession were less materialistic and more idealistic than those surveyed just a few years earlier. 

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.

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, hen 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.

Many young people, she says, are living in what she calls "millennial purgatory," unemployed or under-employed, working in jobs below their qualifications, and sometimes still living at home with their parents. During the Great Recession the unemployment rate for 15- to 24-year-olds has risen above 20 percent -- more than double the overall rate.

 

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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