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.
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