The Best Recession Protection: Education

November 29, 2011TIME | By Elaine Chao

December marks the fourth anniversary of the official beginning of the Great Recession. Though the National Bureau of Economic Research deemed the recession to have ended in June 2009, to most Americans that conclusion seems not to square with reality. When might it really feel, to most Americans, that the recession has ended? Obviously, not until unemployment is much lower, salaries are at least keeping pace with inflation and the housing market has stabilized. Not even the most esteemed economists could more than hazard a guess, albeit an educated one, on when that will occur.

Meanwhile, four years into this downturn that has ravaged the dreams and lives of so many and affected nearly everyone in some way, a weariness has set in even among the more optimistic. One measure of this is the Consumer Confidence Survey results for October, which sank to the dismal levels of 2008-2009 and are less than half what they would be in better times. How many times have you heard friends and family say over the past year: “I thought things would be getting better by now?”

That was a reasonable expectation. Three years after the four deepest previous recessions began — in 1953, 1957, 1973 and 1981 — employment was on average 4.7% higher than the pre-recession peak.

However long this chapter in America’s history persists, it surely will be forever seared into the memories of millions and not soon forgotten by any old enough to remember hardships it caused their families. What will be the takeaway lesson for individuals? It will vary, of course, because everyone is not experiencing this period of time in the same ways. Generally speaking, older Americans have less time to personally recover from any losses during the downturn but many of them also had more resources and less exposure to begin with (for instance, older Americans are more likely to have paid off their mortgage.) The youngest generations have the blessing of time in which to overcome any setbacks, but this has been a historically difficult period in which to begin a career or pay for higher education (the cost of which has risen dramatically in recent decades.)

While there have been news reports of recent college graduates living with their parents because they have been unable to find a job paying a salary sufficient to move out, their near and long-term career prospects remain far brighter than for those without a college degree. One of the lessons all ages should take away from this era — and one which parents and grandparents should drill into children balking at homework or at going back to school — is that education is the best protection against ruin in hard times. Those with higher educations certainly have not been invulnerable to harm in this recession, many are underemployed and unemployed, but they always have been in the best position to survive and thrive. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly “Employment Situation” reports are telling. As of October, the unemployment rates for Americans over age 25, by educational attainment, were: 13.8% for high school dropouts, 9.6% among high school graduates and 4.4% among those Americans with a bachelors degree or more.

The best gift any parent can give their children this holiday season then is a love of learning and appreciation for education.

Chao, former Secretary of Labor, is a Fox News contributor and a Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. The views expressed are her own.
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