Has the Great Recession been long enough and painful enough to change behavior in the ways the Great Depression did?

I think the answer is yes -- in some ways that are obvious and others that are much less so. One of the least obvious changes is also the most ominous, because it has the potential to depress economic growth in the United States and the world's other developed economies over the next decade, when growth will be already in scarce supply.

Refugees from risk

The Great Depression was long enough in the United States -- from 1929 to World War II -- and painful enough -- 25% unemployment -- to change the behavior of all who lived through it.

I think we all know what the lessons of the Great Depression were. My parents, for example, one born in 1917 and the other in 1920, were extremely debt-averse -- a reflection, I think, of watching my grandparents almost lose their house in the 1930s when they couldn't pay their $3,000 mortgage. At the height of my parents' financial recklessness, they had two credit cards: a gasoline credit card they carried when our family took a cross-country car trip in 1965 and a Sears credit card that my Dad used to indulge his love for riding lawn mowers.

They saved so they could send their two sons to college without borrowing. My Dad worked at the same company from the time he was 17 years old until he retired -- at least partially, he told me once, in reaction to his experience of finishing school and not being able to find any job. They inherited some shares of ExxonMobil (XOM) from my grandfather, who worked there, but on their own they never bought a financial asset riskier than a certificate of deposit or a savings bond. Yet they managed to live comfortably in retirement and to leave a respectable estate to my brother and myself.

What I call the Great Recession began in December 2007, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, and it feels like it is still in effect, even if the U.S. economy is growing again. It isn't nearly as long (so far) or as deep as the Great Depression. The official unemployment rate peaked at 10.1% in October 2009, compared with a peak rate of around 25% during the Depression. (The Great Recession has been much deeper in some European economies. In Spain, for example, the official unemployment rate hit 24.4% in April.)

Image: Jim Jubak

Jim Jubak

The Economic Cycle Research Institute is still predicting that the U.S. economy will slide back into recession in 2012. But even if we're not officially in a recession at the moment, the downturn has already been long enough and painful enough here that I think it's worth asking if the Great Recession has produced any lasting changes in behavior like those that resulted from the Great Depression.

3 post-recession worries

I'd break down the changes produced by the Great Recession into three broad groups. The first change, the most obvious and easiest for investors to adapt to, is in consumer purchasing. The second, also reasonably obvious, is in views about work and the nature of a career. The third, most powerful in its effects and the least obvious, is the way the Great Recession has undermined existing belief in financial security. That decline in real and perceived security is likely to change where people put their money and what level of returns they think they can count on -- and, therefore, how much money they think they can spend and how much they feel they have to put away.

That last change is likely to powerfully depress consumer spending for at least a decade, I'd argue, just as the world's developed economies are most in need of every tenth of a percentage point of growth they can get.

1. We're more frugal

Let's start with consumer purchasing.

As you might expect, the Great Recession has made consumers much more price-conscious.

This makes offering a reasonably comparable product for less an attractive proposition. You can see this at work in the current McDonald's (MCD) campaign for its premium coffee. A cup will set you back just $1, McDonald's ads currently promise. The purpose here is to peel off some part of the Starbucks (SBUX) market by promising a premium coffee experience for much less than you'd pay at Starbucks. Of course, the McDonald's coffee experience isn't comparable to walking into a Starbucks and ordering a double shot latte with skim, but McDonald's is betting that in the Great Recession, some part of the Starbucks market will be willing to trade down to the McDonald's premium coffee experience if the price is right.

The success of this kind of appeal is by no means guaranteed. Starbucks is fighting back by offering consumers the option of creating their own Starbucks experience for less by buying Starbucks coffee -- either in bags or in capsules that fit Green Mountain Coffee Roasters' (GMCR) Keurig brewing systems. Dunkin' Brands' (DNKN)Dunkin' Donuts chain has also begun selling branded K-Cups.

And it's not just coffee. For air travel, extra-legroom economy is not just a revenue enhancer for airlines, but also a new price point below business or first class. For car rentals, Zipcar (ZIP) offers vehicles for less to consumers who don't need them for an entire day. And retail chains such as Zara, owned by Spain's Inditex (IDEXY), are focusing on offering fashion with reasonable quality at a reasonable price.

I think you're seeing a lot of experimentation as companies try to figure out the best positioning in the Great Recession marketplace. Don't assume that all this involves simpleminded price cutting, though. The effort right now is to find the right value proposition -- and that means, so far, possible success for businesses that charge more, such as Whole Foods Market (WFM), or Annie's (BNNY), but that also deliver what is perceived as higher quality at the right price.

Finding the correct price point is difficult, and doing so is getting even more difficult right now, because the Great Recession has accelerated the move toward what I'd call "individualized pricing." This is an extension of the coupon clipping that my Mom would pursue with such discipline when the weekly supermarket supplements came out with their "Buy one ham with this coupon and get a package of our hot dogs for 50 cents off" offers. But it's an extension that's powered by the Internet. It means that, much to the discomfort of a Best Buy (BBY), a consumer can use a brick-and-mortar store as a showroom to examine and compare cellphones or flat-screen TVs and then use the Internet to find the best price using one of many comparison tools.

The process doesn't stop there. A majority of the people I know who are younger than 30 don't buy anything until they've done not just an Internet price comparison but also an Internet coupon search for discounts. It's as if my Mom could not only compare the price for StarKist tuna at A&P and Acme, and look for the best deal in the Thursday circulars, but also do a search to find out what company or site was offering the best coupon discount at that moment. (My Mom would have loved it.)

In this environment, a company doesn't just need to offer the best price in its local market at the time when the consumer is contemplating a purchase, but also has to beat all competitors available on the Internet in a constantly changing matrix of prices and discounts.

Unless you're a consumer company with a very clear brand identity and price proposition -- think Apple (AAPL) -- this is a recipe for a never-ending price squeeze.

More from MoneyShow.com: