Graduating in a recession could be good for you (if you’re a man)

Up in the air. Brunel, CC BY-NC-SA

Men who leave school or university during a recession experience better health in later life than those who graduate during a boom, while women experience worse health if leaving school or university during a recession.

These were the surprising findings of a study we carried out and published in the Annals of Epidemiology that considered whether the state of the economy at the time of completing full-time education had long-term effects on physical health in old age.

We compared more than 10,000 people from 11 European countries who had left full-time education between 1956 and 1986 and were included in the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe database. As well as information on health, the database includes data on employment, marriage, and retrospective fertility histories, which were linked to national unemployment rates during the year individuals left school. Some of these graduated during a year of economic contraction, while others in a year of economic expansion. Surprisingly, we found that higher unemployment rates during the school-leaving year were associated with better health at ages 50-74 among men but with worse health among women.

Salaries and careers

Youth unemployment in Europe recently reached a record-breaking level – around a quarter of those aged between 15 and 24 are without a job, making this group most affected by the recession. Recent graduates spend an average of 5.5 months looking for a job and face very serious concerns about their future career prospects.

Several studies have shown that unlucky students graduating in a recession can suffer long-lasting effects from loss of earnings and lowered career prospects. Looking at the earnings profiles and career trajectories of Canadian college graduates researchers found, for example, that graduating in a recession resulted in an average loss of around 10-15% in annual wages in the first years after leaving college – an effect that only faded away after ten years. The main reason for this wage penalty is that recession-graduates on average start their careers in lower paid jobs and sectors.

Although graduating in a recession is bad on salary and career, it seems less clear how it may affect physical health. It could be argued that the toll of earlier years, from excessive stress for example, might lead to worse health in later life. But what might explain the puzzling positive results for men? Permanent changes in lifestyle in early adulthood could provide an explanation why men who completed their education during a recession fare better in health.

Previous studies have shown that people adopt healthier behaviour during recessions, for example reducing consumption of alcohol and tobacco, possibly because there is less money to spend or they are less willing to engage into risk behaviour.

On the other hand, we found that women who left school during a recession married and had children earlier, which led them to opt out of the labour force earlier. Although it is difficult to establish whether this was directly linked to women’s job opportunities after graduation, these important life choices may offer an explanation for the worse health among womens graduating during a recession.

We are currently in the midst of a new cohort of recession-graduates and in countries such as Spain and Greece, where financial crisis is being acutely felt, unemployment is extremely high – 25% and 28% respectively. However, whether this will affect their later health depends on many factors. It would also be wrong to consider the graduates of today as exactly the same as those who graduated in the mid-20th century. Women, for example, will probably have a different set of aims and opportunities to women in 1956. The encouraging news (for men at the very least) is that graduating in a recession – despite the pitfalls – may still leave you in better stead in old age.