Anniversary of the Great Recession: What's Changed, What Hasn't

Five years later, a look at how politics, pop culture and the economy have (and haven’t) shifted.

 Newspaper headlines depicting the economic depression
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Five years ago this week, the world fell back in love with coupons. But as you probably recall, it was something of a forced, shotgun marriage.

That's because, five years ago this week, many Americans felt they had to clip coupons, cut back on luxuries and some necessities and discover the joys of bargain hunting – or risk running out of money altogether. The Great Recession actually began in December 2007, but everyone truly took notice on Sept. 15, 2008, when Lehman Brothers, then the fourth-largest U.S. investment bank, went bankrupt.

The fall of Lehman, which held more than $600 billion in assets, started a chain reaction of financial crises that reverberated throughout the world, and, well, you know the rest. Investment portfolios lost much of their worth, and the national unemployment rate started climbing from 6.1 to 10 percent, its peak in October 2009. The economy went into a tailspin. And everything changed forever.

Sort of. Maybe.

It is tempting to think everything changed after the recession started. For those who lost a job or much of their savings, September 2008 may well be looked at as a turning point, and not one you look back on fondly.

[See: 10 Signs American Families Are Falling Behind.]

"One thing some people have unfortunately had to learn: Their best employment days are most likely behind them. For a certain portion of the population, the recession was life-altering from an income perspective and they have had to adjust to a new standard of living, one that they don't think will ever improve," says Chad Oakley, president of Charles Aris, Inc., a global executive search firm in Greensboro, N.C.

As dire as the Great Recession was – it officially ended in June 2009, although some argue it's ongoing – it may be comforting to look back at the month of September 2008 and realize that plenty of things haven't changed. Our world may have been rocked, but as ugly as the recession was to endure, in many ways, the world we inhabited then looks a lot like the world we inhabit now.

So, just for nostalgia's sake, let's take a look at September 2008 and compare it with September 2013.

Headlines and Popular Culture: Then and Now

Politics. Barack Obama and John McCain were embroiled in a fierce campaign in September 2008. Now, everyone seems to be talking about Hillary Clinton vs. Chris Christie in 2016.

Movies. Superhero movies dominated the box office ("The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man" had just entertained summer audiences). Not much has changed, and audiences are still embracing superheroes as an escape from the country's economic problems: "Iron Man 3" and "Man of Steel" were two of this summer's biggest hits.

Music. Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus were all dominating the radio and music downloads. Still are.

Television. Five years ago, the top-rated television series in the U.S. were "CSI" and "NCIS." This year, the top-scripted series have so far been "NCIS" and "The Big Bang Theory," which was just beginning its second season five years ago.

[Read: What TV and Movie Scenarios Would Cost in Real Life.]

Technology. The iPhone 3GS was a few months old, and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was reassuring stockholders that his health problems were largely exaggerated. Today, Apple's fifth iPhone incarnation is still commanding plenty of ink, and, of course, Jobs is no longer with us.

Buzzwords. Staycation, the term for vacationing cheaply at home, was an extremely popular word months before September 2008, which may have been a sign of things to come. Today's buzzwords? Nothing seems to speak of our state of economy, but selfies, twerking and cray-cray are all making an impression in the lexicon.

Unemployment: Then and Now

On Sept. 14, 2008, the day before Lehman Brothers imploded and the news began forecasting economic doom, unemployment was already climbing. Throughout 2007, Bureau of Labor statistics show that unemployment had been hovering in the 4 percent range. In September, October and November of that year, it held steady at 4.7 percent. In December, however, it jumped to 5 percent and, month to month, mostly began climbing. By September 2008, unemployment was at 6.1 percent – and just kept going up.