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Why You’re Better Off Graduating in a Recession

The class of 2009 says goodbye to Northwestern University. (Source: Youtube)

If you were a member of the college class of 2009, you know a thing or two about misery.

At the time, graduates were entering the worst job market the U.S. had seen in a generation, unemployment rates among new college graduates ballooned, and, for many young people,  their diploma bought them was worth little more than a one-way ticket to Mom and Dad’s basement.

Well, here’s a bit of a silver lining for the much-maligned class of ‘09: Graduating in a recession might mean you will actually be happier in the long run.

Fascinating new research from Emory University shows that people who graduate during recessions are more satisfied with their careers than those who graduated during times of prosperity.

An extra dose of satisfaction

In her study, “The Bright Side of Bad Times,” researcher Emily C. Bianchi analyzed data from two government surveys on job satisfaction that have been administered since the 1970s, and found recession graduates benefited from an extra dose of satisfaction because they managed to land a job during hard times.

That knowledge, the study found, acted like something of a talisman for them for years to come, protecting them from disappointment even if they wound up in lower-paying careers. Bianchi found the same effect occurred even after controlling for income, industry, occupation, age, gender and work experience.

“What surprised me most about these findings was how long these effects endured," she says. "Recession graduates were typically happier with their jobs even decades after receiving their diplomas – and even after markets stabilized, recessions slowed and hiring ramped up.”

We’ve seen a similar effect among Olympic athletes. Psychological studies of bronze and silver medalists have shown people who win bronze are happier than silver medalists because they are so thrilled to have a spot on the podium at all. Silver medalists may have won a bigger prize but they are more likely to beat themselves up over having missed their shot at gold.

Writes Bianchi:

“I found that much like bronze medalists, these graduates spent little time ruminating over how they might have done better and tended to be grateful to have a job at all. Those who graduated during more prosperous times, however, looked at their current jobs differently. Rather than revel in their good fortune, these graduates tended to wonder if they could have or should have done better. Much like silver medalists, they were more likely to be plagued by regret, second-guessing and what ifs.”

Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant picked up on Bianchi’s study as well, pointing to two other studies that show overachievers tend to wind up more miserable in some situations:

College seniors who aim for the best jobs earn 20% more than their peers but are still less satisfied with their jobs, and job candidates who negotiate for salaries tend to earn more but still wind up feeling unhappy with their paycheck.

“When people start their jobs with a rosy view, they’re more likely to be dissatisfied and unproductive, and more inclined to quit,” Grant says. “There’s a gap between high expectations and the mixed reality of most jobs … When people enter a job with a realistic preview, they turn out to be happier, more productive and more likely to stay.”

The bottom line: Expectations are everything.

OK, Class of '09: Are YOU happy with your job today? Sound off here and in the space below.