Recession could make permanent mark on a generation

Sixty years and a dozen economic downturns separate Mason Heilman and his grandparents, Jack and Irene Carter. But tough times ultimately may connect them.

The Carters were kids of the Great Depression, branded by a 1930s thrift that burned deep into their thinking and future lifestyles. "Never played the stock market, because I'm not a gambler," said Irene, 83, of Paola, Kan.

Now Heilman's generation similarly has been etched by what some call the Great Recession.

The University of Kansas student president is hesitant to predict how long its marks may last. It's not the same, of course: He has his laptop, and Grandma began life without even electricity.

But research into past periods of bust, no matter how shallow or short, suggests many of today's young adults will be more cautious, cost-conscious and wary of the fast track — perhaps for a lifetime.

In the decade to come, this recession could be seen as "much bigger than a financial crisis," said cultural anthropologist Robbie Blinkoff. "All this is actually leading to a cultural transformation. Something's definitely permanent about it."

Just as each generation played a different role in the run-up to our downturn — many accuse Baby Boomers of creating it — each is expected to make different adjustments in the post-recession years.

"Spending money is not an end; it's a means to a possible end" of a purposeful life, said Heilman, 22. His double major in secondary education and political science foretell a future in teaching or some other public service, where he expects jobs — though none with six-figure bonuses — to be.

For most workers a bit older, in their 30s and early 40s, the plan is to change jobs as soon as the market allows, according to surveys by the global business consultant Deloitte LLP.

Feeling squeezed between the baby boomers who boss them and the younger, cheaper "millennials" supposedly preferred by recruiters, only 37 percent of Generation Xers say they intend to stay with their current employers.

And the boomers? Man, they've got issues.

The wealthiest generation ever to walk the earth also lost the most when the Dow and home values collapsed.

Collectively, boomers earned more than twice as much as their parents did at the same age — only to sink it into vast houses, vacation homes and a thousand flavors of investments. But they were far less interested in plain-vanilla savings than were their elders.

About 70 percent of boomers were deemed "unprepared for retirement" even before the stock market hit bottom last March. A 2008 McKinsey Global Institute analysis concluded: "Many are not even aware of their predicament."

Recent surveys all agree the boomers now have taken to saving and paying off debt. In the post-recession, those 55 or older will need to keep piling cash away and work a couple of years beyond original retirement plans just to make up ground lost since 2007, economists say.

Delayed retirements, in turn, will clog the ladder of promotion for younger workers.

New Normal, it's called.