In which I am hopeful and idealistic. It’s chronic.
I’m young and unemployed. Technically I’m still in school, but I graduate in May, so I’m looking hard for how to pay the bills afterward. I would say that this situation makes me acutely aware of this terrible economy, but the truth is that we’re all acutely aware of it. There is simply no way to avoid awareness, whether it’s your own business taking a downturn, hearing tales from friends that have been hit hard, struggling to put together a non-profit budget when donations are down but need is up, or, like so many of us, paging endlessly through job postings hoping something looks promising.
I don’t mean to be so depressing here. I’m hopeful that my job prospects will turn up any day now. My point is that this downturn pervades our sensibilities these days, and, if we pay attention, it can’t help but change our perspective.
I recently read this article on the things people are doing to cope with the recession. It reminded me of nothing so much as the stories people tell about those who lived through the Great Depression saving bits of string, tinfoil and disposable cutlery to use again. Waste not, want not.
I think this Recession with a capital R will likewise stick with us. The economy goes up and down a lot, but it certainly seems like this downturn has had a greater impact than, say, the tech bubble bursting. When that happened, people lost some stock value (which hurt, for sure), but this time it’s our homes and our jobs that are at risk. That feels more personal, and the emotional impact of the Great Recession may well be something that lasts, that shapes us into as distinctive a generation as the octogenarians still saving bits of string to this day.
It’s impossible to say at this point just how we’ll be changed, but I have a guess. Really it’s more like a hope.
My guess is that we will remember how fleeting our financial security is. This will likely make us save more, spend less, and waste less. These are all great, practical things. But I wonder if the change won’t be broader. If we feel deep down that the bottom could drop out at any point, will we be more sympathetic to people going through hard times? Will we finally turn our backs on the anti-poor rhetoric of the 80’s and 90’s and see people with fewer resources as really not so different?
I’ve spent a lot of my time working with people who come from very different backgrounds than I do, both through working in a direct service non-profit jobs and through making sure my internships in law school were with organizations designed around the needs of the unrepresented. This experience has planted in me a deep and abiding belief that people have more in common than we usually admit. That people who can’t afford what other people can afford and have to look elsewhere for support are just like everyone else. They are everyone else. They just caught a bad break. They probably caught several.
And it’s my fervent hope that this perspective is spreading. That catching a glimpse of our own economic mortality will mean that looking out for our own personal advancement is diminishing and supporting policies that favor the common good is growing.
Someday, times will be better. Someday, this will be a story we tell to people who weren’t there. What will we say?
I’m hopeful that we’ll say that this was the time we learned that we’re not so different from each other after all. Many people who grew up middle class suddenly see that they too could have to give up going to the movies or owning a car. Our economic security is never more than an illusion, but it’s so easy to forget that when times are good. When times are bad, the path to the bottom becomes much clearer, and it’s scary. But if we let it, it can also make us see that those who need help are just like us.
We’re all in this together after all, or we should be. Maybe a better way to put it is that we CAN all be in this together, if we choose. If it becomes abundantly clear to me that my financial security could evaporate at any moment, maybe I won’t look down on your need to go on food stamps, or the hard choices you had to make to support your family. Maybe I’ll give you the extra dollar I have at the moment. Maybe I’ll let my gratitude for being able to put food on the table overflow into helping you put food on your table.
If I know it could happen to me, I’ll be more inclined to help you. As part of the Recession Generation, I hope that is the lasting legacy these trying times leave on us.