In seventh grade I learned to avoid using the word “great” whenever possible in writing. My English teacher argued that it was a trite adjective. Of course she was thinking more of its popular usage (as in “he’s great at tennis”), but even in its formal sense the word has lost some luster through the years. In a way it’s ironic: A word, which by its very definition should be reserved only for the rarest of occasions, has been used so often that its meaning is now diluted.
Why the English lesson, you may ask? When the recession struck in 2008 and references to our so-called “Great Recession” became commonplace, I began to wonder about the implications of tacking that word onto the front of our economic problems. I’ll grant that it’s a clever turn of phrase—one that stands out in this age of sound bites by recalling the Great Depression. Yet I can’t help but feel as though we’re being premature, as well as a bit presumptuous, in likening this downturn to what happened 80 years ago.
As unprecedented as this recession is in terms of its scope and complexity, the Great Depression stands alone in severity. No turn of phrase, regardless of how catchy it is, should imply otherwise. During the Depression the Dow dropped almost 90 percent over a three-year period, and unemployment reached an astonishing 25 percent. By comparison our downturn has resulted in a 50 percent drop in the stock market (which has since rebounded considerably) and just under 10 percent unemployment.
Numbers tell just one part of the story, though. To get an idea of how difficult it was then, I only have to look to my own family. During the 1930s my great-grandparents were among the hundreds of thousands who migrated to California in search of work. For the better part of a decade they went from one backbreaking job to another, and their home was often a dirt-floor tent. My grandfather’s stories about his childhood were like something straight out of The Grapes of Wrath.
It’s little wonder why we refer to these individuals as the Greatest Generation. Even if you disregard World War II, the Depression was more than enough to earn them that nickname. Perhaps our desire for a similar distinction explains why we’ve latched on to calling this the Great Recession. Whether we admit to it or not, we all have high expectations for our lives and wish to be part of something historic, even if it comes about through hardship.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” Those words still ring true today, but not just in the way he intended them. Somehow we have misinterpreted the true meaning of greatness. Applying that label correctly requires perspective—something we are in short supply of these days. We ourselves can’t say if we’re living in great times. That’s for a future generation to decide.