Skip to main content

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — If you felt bad for those who graduated between 2007 and 2009 because they were entering the real world during a recession — save that sympathy.

New research from Emory University's Business School suggests that instead of pitying college graduates who got that diploma during a recession, people should be jealous of them. That's because college grads who graduate during a bad economic times typically end up with greater job satisfaction and more fulfillment than those who may have had an easier time finding a job.

The new findings were authored by Emily Bianchi, assistant professor of organization and management at Emory University's Goizueta Business School. Bianchi looked at data from two government-run surveys and the results showed people who earned their degrees during downturns in the economy were typically more satisfied with their current jobs than those who first looked for work during good economic times.

Bianchi looked at existing surveys of U.S. graduates who received degrees between 1974 and 2011 and also conducted her own survey of 247 working adults with graduate degrees. Perhaps just as interestingly as recession graduates being happier with their jobs than those who earned their degree during good times, the results also show those people typically have higher job satisfaction throughout their adult life, not just with their first job.

Bianchi says that while past research has shown that job satisfaction remains pretty steady throughout adulthood, which typically has been chalked up to personality traits of workers. However, Bianchi thinks her research shows that satisfaction may have more to do with early workforce experience.

"Much in the way that personality shapes how people perceive and respond to their work environments, early-career environmental conditions appear to similarly influence how they make sense of and evaluate their jobs," she said

While the research may surprise some, Bianchi said she wasn't shocked by the outcome. It's true recession graduates may earn less money, and their first jobs may not be ideal, but they typically are more grateful for what they have. Bianchi also argues the conclusion is consistent with psychological research that says just the right amount of adversity is associated with greater happiness.

"Too much adversity can be emotionally debilitating," said Bianchi, adding results could not be accounted for by generational differences or differences in industry or occupational selection. "Too little can weaken resilience, allowing people to magnify and exaggerate the bumps of everyday life."

The study shows people who graduate during an economic upswing are more likely to wonder if they could have done better or should have gone in a different direction. However, recession graduates tend to feel more grateful to have any job at all and spend less time wondering what might have been.

"Decades of psychological research has shown that how people feel about their outcomes does not always mirror the objective value of these outcomes," Bianchi writes, illustrating people can be happy with less depending on how they look at it.

Bianchi concludes in her study "while past research on job satisfaction has focused largely on situational and dispositional antecedents, these results suggest that early workforce conditions also can have lasting implications for how people affectively evaluate their jobs."

The new findings appear in her paper, "The Bright Side of Bad Times: The Affective Advantages of Entering the Workforce in a Recession" and were published in the most recent issue of Administrative Science Quarterly.

—Written by Chris Metinko for MainStreet