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Thursday, December 19, 2013 - 2:32am

Recession Graduates Are...Happier?

Lots of research indicates graduating from college in an economic downturn hurts a worker’s career and earnings—and the financial effects, at least, persist for 10 years or more.

For example:

The National Bureau of Economic Research published a paper in 2006 noting recession-era graduates lose about 9 percent of their initial annual earnings and it takes a decade to regain them.

That effect on wages can actually endure throughout a graduate’s career, according to a Yale study from a few years ago. (Read some analysis from Peter Orszag, former director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.)

Yet a new study from Emory University indicates those who earn a degree during challenging economic times are ultimately happier with their jobs.

“How people respond to their outcomes does not always reflect the value of those outcomes,” said Emily Bianchi, a management professor and researcher at Emory University who authored the study. “People can be happier with worse outcomes depending on how they think about those outcomes.”

Bianchi’s paper was published this month in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly. She said the greater job satisfaction is a matter of perspective, something she first picked up on reading blogs from recent grads or news stories where many were quoted.

“You would hear, ‘It’s not the job I really wanted, but I realize I’m so lucky. I’m so grateful to have this job.’ And that was a theme,” Bianchi said. “So I decided to empirically evaluate it: Would you see that people who first looked for work in economically challenging times did report more gratitude for even their current job, even if it wasn’t their first job. And they did.”

The positive attitude persists, too. Bianchi said past research has shown that job attitudes are fairly stable, even when people change jobs or get better opportunities. So the initial gratitude lasts beyond the recession, too.

“There’s a lot in happiness that’s genetic, but the research I’ve done also suggests that it can be affected by these strong, experiential events, especially when you’re a young adult and first looking for work, first thinking about your adult career identity, in particular,” Bianchi said.

“Those first circumstances can have a lasting impact on how you think about a job,” she said.

They also seem to discourage workers from second-guessing the choices they made right out of college, Bianchi said.

“I found that was much more prevalent in people who graduated in economic boom, because folks had at least the perception that there were all these different alternatives they might have had,” she said. “Whereas with recession graduates, you’re much more likely to see this optimization of what I have because I know there weren’t a lot of different paths I could’ve gone down.”