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Recessions, eh?

The world, as it revolves on my phone in all the algorithmic splendour that various services slant for me, is petrified of an impending recession. In a moment of information-overload sobriety, I wonder WTF does that mean? Is it really: recession = economic downturn = collapse of life as we know it.

More objectively, recessions are defined by decreased economic output. Without diving into the cause and effect details, this includes: more unemployment, less consumer demand for products, and lower business spending. Also, contractions in the stock market (often starting before the recession).

I’ve lived through recessions before. I must have, they aren’t that rare. I can’t recall when or what it was like. Perhaps I am privileged, or the effects are more subtle than the media suggest our pending recession is. 

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia1, the recessions I’ve experienced so far were:

  • October 2008-May 2009
  • March 1990 – April 1992
  • June 1981 – Oct. 1982
  • Jan 1980 – June 1980
  • Dec.1974 – March 19752

In the 1970’s I was still in my parents’ protective orb, a kid. While some children are severely effected, most are sheltered from the ups and downs of family livelihood. Fed, clothed and loved, we carried on, despite our parent’s concerns about their jobs, savings, and where the loan would come from for a new car or vacation.

By 1980, I was away at university, living large because I thought I was independent, out of the ‘burbs, needing only beer and cigarette money to survive. The ties to the bank of Mom were still strong, but easily dismissed by youthful arrogance. Anyway, the point is: recession. Punk rock was an immersive experience, brought on by widespread unemployment, poverty, and dislike of the establishment. A sign of recessionary times? I wish I could say I embraced the culture because I was aware of the dire economic conditions, but it just seemed cool.

Slightly later, in the summer of ’81, I managed to get a job I wasn’t really qualified for, and spent my free time doing a bunch of road trips around southern Ontario. We must have paid for gas, food and beverages along the way but it wasn’t an issue. No recessionary forces to recall from that year. The summer of ’82, I was also employed, as a research summer student. Specialized and apparently recession proof. I remember buying a loaf of white bread and a package of ‘lunch meat’ to sustain myself for a week. At a convenience store. Looking back, it seems my nutritional challenges were more self imposed than economic. 

I should have grown up by 1990. What I did was inherit some money which I put towards a house that I sold in ’96 for about what I paid for it in 1990. I caught the tail end of inflation in the housing market and it still hadn’t recovered 6 years later. Otherwise, I don’t recall any issues, like wildly escalating prices on commonly purchased items. This could be because I got my first ‘real’ job and stopped living like a student. It felt like the lap of luxury, living on the current day equivalent of about $50K a year, I went on shopping sprees at discount department stores, bought their premium towels and other household items, and had the roof re-shingled when shingles blew off. 

In 2008, I was living in Nova Scotia, a province that prides itself on everyone having enough, but few excesses. Even the very wealthy in NS don’t show it. They may have nice houses, but dress much the same as everyone else in the Tim Horton’s line for coffee. An insular and resource based economy sees much of the output consumed locally.

I recall announcing to a class of undergraduates that NS had become the ‘wealthy province’ during the 2008 recession. They giggled politely. In NS, housing prices didn’t crash (they couldn’t plummet from their modest levels), industries didn’t collapse (daily living provided ongoing demand), unemployment was the same. Compared to the wealthy provinces that were hurting because of low demand, high unemployment and reduced consumer spending, we went about our business as usual. 

My investment portfolio did contract, but as it was slated for my retirement, many years into the future, I covered my eyes and hoped it would get better soon. It did, if you consider several years ‘soon’. My older colleagues were not as fortunate, as their scheduled retirements were postponed a couple of years due to market conditions. 

What might a recession in 2023 bring? I’m not thrilled about the shrinkage in my stock-market-dependent retirement fund but [all] it means is that I should keep working, which might be a bit wobbly if unemployment is high. Like many people, I’d jump for joy if the price of necessities would come down.

One of the joys of being old is having enough. My house, car and teeth are my own. The kitchen is full of gadgets, closet full of timeless clothes, basement and garage full of tools. No need for big expenditures. I can sit back in my rocking chair and wait out economic shenanigans. I think. 

As I look back, my theme is rolling with the greater economic changes. I’m not trying to diminish the impact a recession may have on the vulnerable. That is real. On average, most of us may have to cut back a little but still enjoy a comfortable life.

My wish for everyone – may the recession pass you by as peacefully as rain in the night, trees falling in the forest when you live downtown, or when someone you’ve never hear of, who invented something you’ve never heard of, is passed over for the Nobel prize. 


2 To put some data to the term recession, this source is a study of what happened in the US during the ’74 recession to average consumer spending. Interestingly, ‘non-durable’ product spending remained the same as the previous boom year, but durable goods, automobile purchases and savings declined. In other words, people kept buying what they needed on a day to day basis, but put off expenditures on big new purchases, and had less left to put into their savings accounts.

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