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'Here we go again': Young Americans turn to memes, dark humor in face of recession

Image: With another possible recession looming, millennials are coping thro
With another possible recession looming, millennials are coping through fatalistic humor and memes. Copyright Chelsea Stahl NBC News; Getty Images
Copyright Chelsea Stahl NBC News; Getty Images
By Kalhan Rosenblatt with NBC News Tech and Science News
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"A lot of us are in a lot of college debt, jobs are hard to get," said one young person who posted to Twitter about a possible recession.


Gina Fuchs, 23, has grown jaded to all the articles about the things her generation is killing. From cars and homes to diamonds and even the institution of marriage, there seems to be few things safe from the so-called millennial killing spree.

But it was one recent headline from an Axios newsletter, "1 big thing: Millennials aren't ready for recession," that sent her over the edge. So Fuchs turned to what many millennials, those born from 1981 to 1996, consider to be second nature when coping with a problem that seems inevitable: fatalistic humor, memes and social media.

"I read this and thought, 'OK, I feel like we're the most prepared,'" Fuchs told NBC News. "A lot of us are in a lot of college debt, jobs are hard to get. ... I don't know how it gets worse from here."

Concerns of a recession have grown in recent months as some indicators have forecast a rocky economy ahead. Younger Americans have generally greeted the forecasts with measured exasperation but also a heavy dose of irony.

Fuchs' meme of choice was a popular picture of the heiress Paris Hilton, arms outstretched, with a shirt emblazoned "Stop Being Poor," which had been seized on as a parody of conservative commentary. (The picture is actually an altered version of a photo of Hilton in a shirt that reads, "Stop Being Desperate.")

Fuchs posted the picture to her Twitter account, noting that "we already have no money, stocks, or property and have been in crippling debt since age 17."

Fuchs' sentiment was shared by other young Americans on social media, who also employed their memes of choice.

John Costanzo, 22, of Long Island, New York, said that although he was young during the Great Recession, he was not immune to its consequences. Costanzo said his father, who was in telecommunications, lost work until he was "effectively unemployed," which caused his mother to join the workforce and the family to rely on their savings.

"In many ways, we are still being affected, and I think that is what is most frightening about a recession — it has the potential to have very real and long-lasting consequences and that is particularly frightening for a young person who is just starting out in the 'real world,'" Costanzo said.

So when talk of another recession flared, Costanzo seized on a recently popular meme that uses a picture from the video game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" with the caption: "Aw, s---. Here we go again."

Costanzo wrote, "Millennials in the face of yet another impending recession."

Costanzo told NBC News it was a reaction to how he felt about the last recession.

"I know I do not want to experience another recession in 2019, 2020, or, frankly, ever. So, I simply tweeted about how I felt," Constanzo said.

The humor from millennials and Gen Z (generally considered those born in 1997 and after) about the recession is underscored by worry about what an economic downturn could mean for them. In a Morning Consult pollcommissioned by NBC News, 55 percent of older respondents said they were prepared for another recession, compared with 27 percent of younger respondents, but across the board, all age groups said they were equally concerned about the next recession.

Some economists have said that another recession isn't a guarantee, but the discussion of a possible recession was enough to stoke millennial and Gen Z fears — and memes. Some memes commiserate millennials going through what could possibly be their second recession as Gen Z would go through its first. Others blame Baby Boomers for creating a mess that will have long-term ramifications for younger generations.


Still others joke that the recession could be a home-buying opportunity for millennials who haven't previously been able to buy property.

"The grave humor we find with memes tends to be a coping mechanism," said Shane Tilton, assistant professor of multimedia journalism at Ohio Northern University. "Gen Z and millennials don't have the ability to control the economy, but by goodness they can put text on a gif and say something about the situation that's happening."

Tilton said young people using humor to cope with economic hardship can be traced back to the Great Depression when satire was injected into radio shows by entertainers such as Will Rogers.

For millennials and Gen Z, memes are also a way for them to feel like they have some control, Tilton said.


"It's a way they're dealing with stress. Memes do that effectively," Tilton said. "A simple expression of stress is also a way of taking control."

Many millennials are still playing catch-upmore than a decade after the Great Recession. Millennial households are among the largest percentage in poverty of any generational group, according to Pew Research Center data, and, in many cases, millennials have lower home ownership rates, less in their savings accounts and a smaller nest egg for retirement than previous generations did at their age.

In the Morning Consult poll, 35 percent of adults 18 to 29 and 49 percent 30 to 44 said that they were negatively affected by the first recession. Of those 18- to 29-year-old respondents, half said they expected the next recession to be "major."

Costanzo, a recent college graduate, admits that tweeting isn't exactly a constructive way of dealing with the future, but he does it anyway.


"I am, of course, aware that tweeting does not necessarily actually do anything to change whatever it is I'm tweeting about," he said. "Tweeting does, however, make me feel better, I admit, and that is something even if it's a very small thing."

Costanzo tweeted a second meme about the recession, this one showing Ralph Wiggum from "The Simpsons" on a bus saying, "I'm in danger." Under that image, Costanzo tweeted, "Recent college graduates who graduated with a degree in the humanities who have little to no job experience, who grew up during the Great Recession of 2008, saw how that went for anyone with poor job security, and who are now watching the economy teeter on the brink of downfall."

That tweet got a decent amount of attention, with more than 2,600 likes. But one by The Washington Post's Gene Park went viral, with more than 125,100 likes.

Park tweeted out a meme of James Franco with a noose around his neck, a still image from the film "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs." The meme is subtitled with Franco's line, "First time?"


Above that image, Park wrote, "Millennials to Gen Z as the recession nears."

If the economy does show signs of a downturn, expect to see more such memes and tweets, experts say.

"As there are changes in society, especially with the economy, Gen Z and millennials will use the tools of communication that are available to them. They've grown up with online communication," Tilton, the professor, said. "This is an extension of their overall concerns for their communities."

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