I was barely 21 and fresh out of college with the most unmarketable combination of majors ever allowed. Wait, they weren’t allowed; I had to ask the major research university in my state to let me major in English and Anthropology. They acquiesced and I graduated early. Ta da. Right smack into a difficult and comprehensive recession.
However, because I was 21 at the time, I was also clueless, and therefore had no idea a major recession was underway. I thought when I couldn’t find a job in 1980 that it was just me. And, in a number of instances, that’s probably exactly what it was. On the other hand, my older brother at the front end of the Baby Boom got a job in business with a degree in Philosophy because the seventies were, well, flexible that way. Little did I know the enormous difference a couple of years could make.
Incidentally, I hadn’t given any serious thought as to what I was going to do after college. My naivete probably vexed every advisor I saw. Please note that tuition was very, very cheap at the public university I attended: I took 18 credit hours for $300.00 per semester (gasp!). I liked school so much (plain crazy, I know) and was happy to learn for the sake of learning as long as someone let me. It would be some years before I’d find the career (teaching) that actually permitted me to do just that.
I did eventually land a job out of college in a field I found somewhat interesting, law enforcement (don’t ask). But when I was ready to leave that field and find work that would not take another ten years off of my life, the recession was still strangling the economy with 15% interest rates (no kidding) on home loans and an extremely tight job market. It became clear that another position would not materialize any time soon. School came into focus as the logical course of action to supply me with the knowledge I needed in order to do something else.
That part of the story has a happy ending in that I pursued preliminary coursework at a community college, segued into graduate studies, and was rendered eligible to teach college, which I found extraordinarily rich and rewarding. I then specialized in an area I am still in today and, honestly, have loved so much that I rarely think of it as work.
I recently moderated a panel discussion of coworkers who addressed the topic of the intergenerational workplace by sharing stories from their lives. The generations ranged from Millenials to Traditionals and those in between: Baby Boomers and Gen X. The panelists were prompted to identify what they felt was the most significant historical event that occurred during their youth. Their stories were poignant to a one, but what came clear through their comments was how this specific event shaped them and their view of the world.
One Gen Xer talked movingly of the profound effect the Challenger disaster had on him as his fourth grade class watched the entire horrific event unfold on January 27, 1986. They had studied space and were going to track this mission because a teacher was aboard. So they could view the launch, his teacher had wheeled a TV into their classroom, intending to seize the teachable moment, never guessing it would not be the lesson planned.
I, too, distinctly remember the moment the Challenger exploded; it was at once shocking and wrenching and grievous and swiftly spiraled into a national despair. But it didn’t have the same impact for me that it had for my colleague. I was a married, working adult in my twenties applying to graduate school. The space race of the 1960s had been the historical backdrop of my childhood. Though I did not watch the horror of the Mercury astronauts meeting their death on January 27, 1967, I knew about it, and through that tragedy and the ensuing Apollo launches, I had intellectually, at least, come to understand the risks.
Obviously, every generation is shaped by events well out of their control. But it is interesting to contemplate how your age at the time colors your perspective and ultimately you.
Which leads me to this recession, roughly 30 years later. This time I am acutely aware that it’s here because in the area where I live there are signs aplenty: unprecedented large budget cuts to previously flourishing school districts, depreciating property values signaled by the county appraiser, multiple rounds of lay-offs by companies large and small, friends with powerful skill sets and years of experience struggling to find employment, favorite stores vacating centers and buildings, good restaurants disappearing.
This time, I see shards of a shattered economy at every turn and feel the pain that eluded me thirty years ago. There are days I wish I was 21 again and didn’t have to care about it the way I must now. And that is somewhat my point. I don’t worry about my children’s generation as much as I do my own. To be sure, their futures will be forged in these times. But they are young, they are resilient, and the economic doors will swing open again for them someday. They can reinvent themselves, start over, leave, go elsewhere, wait it out, make different choices.
But these times are not easy for those now middle-aged and older, and it is not a whine to say so. Most of the folks I know live much closer to Main Street than to Wall Street. Thoughtful and seemingly rational decisions were made and lives arranged around those decisions. Change now comes involuntarily, fraught with conflicts and at a much higher price.
I was waiting for the dog to come back inside this morning so I could wipe his muddy paws. As I looked straight ahead out the door, I spotted green spikes poking up about 5 inches out of the ground at the back edge of our yard. The crocuses that line our back fence, planted long before we moved in fifteen years ago, are preparing to bloom in the next few weeks whether it rains or shines or snows or doesn’t.
The harshest winter we’ve had in years is still going to yield the promise of spring in the fleeting bloom of its first show of color against the matted brown grass. Some small comfort, I know, but at Flat Rock Creek hope tends to spring eternal, even if on some days only in the garden.