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Tim Myers: Lessons of a recession: The glass half full

Myers' Musings

Posted: January 3, 2009 9:28 p.m.
Updated: January 4, 2009 4:30 a.m.

In the late 1990s when I worked for Ernst & Young, I recall a meeting of the management of the Financial Services Group during which tempers got heated and the following exchange occurred:
“Old School” partner: “What is with these staff people today? Not only do they refuse to work on weekends, now some even refuse to check their voice mail on weekends to answer questions! What is with this new generation?”

“Old School” (but pragmatic) Partner: “I don’t agree with their attitude, but the point is these folks have great resumes, they interview well and if you push them too hard they will go to work for a competitor or industry and you will lose your capacity to perform services overnight. That’s just a fact.”

“Old School” partner: “Well, I still don’t get it. When I was their age I worked weekends and if voice mail existed, I would check it hourly to stay on top of things!”

“Old School” (but pragmatic) Partner: “Well, think about the circumstances when you started working.”

“Old School” partner: “Well, it was 1983 in the middle of a tremendous recession, and I was happy to have a job and not worry about all this other stuff.”

“Old School” (but pragmatic) Partner: “Precisely! It is a different day now and these kids, even with their slovenly attitude, could have four offers of employment by the end of next week!”

I think this exchange indicates a truism. We like to think the attitudes of our generation (the “good” generation) formed due to our fantastic brains and impeccable work ethic.

The sad fact? Our attitudes form around the circumstances that exist during our coming of age, so it should surprise no one that those of us who secured our first employment during the economically difficult years of the early 1980s sport a different attitude toward work than those who came of age during boom times — particularly those during the recent bubble fueled by easy money and artificially low interest rates.

The fact remains the last serious recession the U.S. faced with high unemployment on a national scale occurred during the early 1980s. Other downturns wreaked havoc in certain areas (Southern California did not constitute a pleasant place in the early 1990s), but the recession of the early 1990s and the early part of this century constituted shallow and short dips on the historical economic growth curve.

This being the case, people younger than 40, and perhaps even 45, did not contend with a serious recession in their entire lives.

So many people living now truly will fly blind into this recession. Like the “Old School” partner referred to above, those of us who came out of college into the workforce during the early 1980s shared very low expectations concerning our work.

Those fortunate enough to secure salaried employment held such gratitude toward their employers that we moderated our expectations for pay and recognition and upgraded our expectations concerning performance — translated into long hours with little, at least public, griping.

It will interest me to see how folks under 40 contend with this new reality — and the fact that leveraging up one’s home with 30-year debt to support consumer spending for cars and vacations no longer makes sense.

But does the lack of recession thought translate into institutional memory? I believe it does.

Consider the city of Santa Clarita, an institution that recently turned 21 years old. Other than a short period of malaise in the early 1990s, it knows nothing but growth, growth and more growth, with the attendant increases in retail facilities pouring ever-increasing amounts into city coffers, and developer fees swelling those same coffers, allowing the city to spend money on elaborate infrastructure of which other cities can merely dream.

And think of the local charities that tracked with this boom, hosting elaborate fundraisers with the ever-present auction during which those who took advantage of that same leverage raced to show off their “wealth” by bidding up useless auction items to prove who possessed the most money to blow?

I wait to see how our local elected officials and professional city managers will contend with this new, if a temporary, reality.

While I do like to criticize county governance of areas of the Santa Clarita Valley, I do know the county certainly possesses an institutional memory of economic bust. And they might stand in a better position to cope with the difficult issues.

Tim Myers is a Valencia resident. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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