Bianchi (2013). The Bright Side of Bad Times: The Affective Advantages of Entering the Workforce in a Recession

Emily Bianchi – Emory University

Pooja Mishra – INSEAD
Andrew Hafenbrack – INSEAD

Article link:

Question 1. We must admit that this was a very unique paper in several ways. We are fascinated by the research problem that you address here, and the broad question of how certain shocks we encounter influence our worldviews or self-narratives. What inspired you to research this question? How did you get this idea? We noticed that you graduated from college in 2001, which seems to coincide with the crash of the dot-com bubble. To what extent did the idea stem from your personal experiences?

This idea was certainly influenced by my personal experiences. I was in college during both the height and crash of the bubble. During the bubble, there seemed to be an incredible sense of opportunity and possibility. At the annual career fair in 1999 and 2000, companies were showering students with embroidered polo shirts, nerf basketball hoops, and other trinkets. They seemed to be fighting for college seniors. Many seniors I knew seemed to be obsessed with optimizing their job and career decisions. Expectations were extremely high. A Newsweek survey in 1999 found that 77% of college students expected to be millionaires and 61% expected to retire between age 40 and 50. There seemed to be a sense that any path was possible and that being successful and well-off was easily attainable.

By the time my class was graduating in 2001, the economic environment had completely changed. New college graduates were no longer in demand. Companies were no longer showering students with merchandise. Many of them weren’t hiring and few even showed up to the career fair. The spring of my senior year, there was a pervasive anxiety about what, if any, post-graduation jobs we might find. When people did secure jobs, there was a feeling of relief, rather than second-guessing whether it was the best job with the greatest future outlook. I spent a year cobbling together part time jobs before finally landing my first full time job. By most measures, it was not a great job. It paid so poorly that I had to move back home. But I was so happy to have it. I don’t think I would have felt that way if I had graduated at the height of the bubble.

Question 2. As your introduction suggests, these results may be very counterintuitive for some because people who are graduating in bad economic times might understandably be more dissatisfied with their jobs. As you note, prior research has found that those jobs tend to be objectively worse, and such graduates’ objective disadvantage vis-à-vis others who graduate in better economic conditions tends to persist over time. Were there any specific aspects of your findings which were particularly surprising to you?

When I first decided to empirically test whether recession graduates were more satisfied with their jobs, I had competing expectations about what I would find. On the one hand, I expected that recession graduates would be happier because they would spend less time ruminating about unchosen paths and wondering whether they could have done better. But given that recession graduates hold objectively worse jobs and receive lower salaries, I wondered if these circumstances might be so challenging that they would override any psychological advantages. Part of what I enjoy about the research process is testing competing hypotheses empirically. It was exciting to see psychological sense-making emerge as such a powerful and long-lasting predictor of how people feel about their jobs.

In terms of surprise, I was certainly surprised by how long these effects can last. Many of the respondents in these studies were decades removed from their first workforce experiences. Yet in most cases, the results were as strong for mid and later career respondents as they were for those who were just starting out.

Question 3. The processes/mechanisms that you study in your paper were intriguing for us. How did you come up with these two mechanisms? Were there other contenders while you were developing your theory? In your view, what could be other processes that one could study in future research? (While these might be related to the processes you chose, do you think it would be plausible that decreases in overconfidence, or entitlement, or increases in humility or insecurity play a role?)

I certainly expect that there are other mechanisms that underlie this effect. I focused on counterfactuals and gratitude for a couple of reasons. First, I have always been captivated by a paper showing that Olympic bronze medallists tend to be happier with their results than silver medallists. Silver medallists are more apt to generate upward counterfactuals about how things might have turned out even better, and as a result, they tend to be less satisfied with objectively better results. I suspected that similar ruminations might compromise satisfaction among graduates who began their careers during prosperous times. These graduates likely entertained many real or imagined possible paths. Like silver medallists, I expected that they would more easily generate upward counterfactuals about how things might have turned out better.

While entertaining better imagined worlds seemed to explain why boom graduates might be less satisfied, gratitude seemed like a plausible affective benefit for those who graduated in a recession. I started exploring this idea at the height of the Great Recession and began reading a lot of first person accounts from recent college graduates. Great Recession graduates faced a far worse economy than any cohort since the Great Depression. Given this extreme misfortune, I was surprised by how often new graduates reported feeling grateful for even sub-optimal jobs. This sentiment emerged again and again. It was not a sentiment that seemed prevalent during the bubble. Gratitude helps people focus on the bright side of good or bad situations. If gratitude was a prevailing and enduring sentiment among recession graduates, I expected that it might help explain why these graduates tend to be happier with their jobs, even when these jobs are objectively worse.

Question 4. Did the paper change much during the review process? What were the main challenges? As you have mostly used archival data, were you asked to get additional data?

The core ideas did not change considerably during the review process but the depth of the analyses and the development of the theory did change quite a bit. The Editor and reviewers challenged me to rule out alternative explanations and to more clearly develop the theory. Their critiques were very helpful in more fully exploring and testing these ideas.

Question 5. You have used the dataset very effectively. Are there any suggestions/advice that you would want to give to PhD students to use the publicly available datasets?

Thank you. Publicly available datasets are extremely rich and valuable sources of data. They often consist of a representative cross-section of the population. They are often collected over many decades and allow researchers to look at how attitudes have changed over time. But they also pose a lot of challenges. Typically, the data has been collected and coded by many people. Questions are added and dropped over time. Often questions are not asked in the way that researchers wish they were asked. Sometimes the coding systems change over time. These all create considerable challenges. For instance, the GSS which I used in Study 1, has changed the way it categorizes occupation and industry several times over four decades of survey administrations. These changes were made for good reasons but they make it difficult to run cross-temporal analyses. Such analyses were critical for my paper because I wanted to know whether different occupation or industry choices accounted for greater job satisfaction among recession graduates. I spent a lot of time figuring out how to reconcile these very different coding schemes. This was a time intensive and difficult process and reflects one of the challenges of using these kinds of datasets.

Question 6. Both of us are interested in interventions and currently work on mindfulness meditation, the affective consequences of which lend further support to the idea that, as you quote from Gilbert and Ebert (2002: 512), ‘‘. . . satisfaction is a response not to the properties of outcomes but to the psychological construal of those outcomes.’’ Furthermore, Organizational Behavior could also increase its legitimacy and claim to resources relative to other fields by making prescriptive suggestions (Bazerman, 2005). What could be some practical implications of the studies in this article? Would you recommend improving subjective experience in the workplace by interventions that reduce upward social comparisons and increase gratitude? If so, what would you suggest?

I think this paper underscores the idea that how people think about their work can strongly influence how they feel about their work. We cannot control whether we graduate in a recession or boom-times. Yet, to some extent, we can control how we think about our jobs. Those who spend time dwelling on missed opportunities or unchosen paths tend to be less satisfied with whatever jobs they hold. Those who can hold on to that feeling of relief and gratitude they felt when they secured their first job will not only be happier at work, they probably will be more enjoyable to work with.

In terms of practical implications, the paper points to another advantage of hiring during a recession. Economists have long argued that economic downturns are an ideal time to hire skilled workers given reduced competition from other top companies. My findings point to another reason why downturns might be an optimal time to bring in bright college graduates. Not only are companies more likely to secure the graduates they want, but these graduates are likely to be more satisfied and perhaps even more loyal employees.

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