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What is a recession?

Everything you need to know about recessions, including how to survive them.

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What is a recession?

In the complex world of economics, recessions are a common concern, and knowing what they are matters. But what exactly is a recession, and why is it important to understand? A recession is a significant economic downturn that affects individuals, businesses, and entire nations. It's more than a financial term; it's a real-life event that can impact us all.

In a world where economic stability matters to us all, this knowledge is essential. In this article, we'll explain what a recession is and why it's important for everyone, whether you're an economist or just someone trying to navigate the modern world. Let's unpack what a recession is and explore why it matters.

The economic aspects of a recession

To grasp the significance of a recession, let's take a look at its economic aspects. We'll begin by looking at key economic indicators, like Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

GDP is like an economic health check. It measures the total value of goods and services produced in a country. When GDP shrinks, it's often a sign of a looming recession. By monitoring GDP, economists gain a better understanding of economic ups and downs.

Economic growth, measured by GDP, plays a vital role in preventing recessions. It creates jobs, helps businesses grow, and boosts consumer confidence. It goes without saying that a strong economy is better at handling tough times.

How recessions affect businesses and industries

When a recession hits, it affects businesses and industries in various ways:

Decreased consumer spending

In a recession, people usually cut back on non-essential spending. This hurts businesses that rely on such purchases.

Decline in production and sales

Less spending leads to less production and fewer sales. Businesses may end up with too much inventory and unused equipment.

Job losses and unemployment

Businesses struggling in a recession often have to lay off workers. This leads to more people without jobs, which is tough for families and communities.

Bankruptcies and closures

Some businesses can't survive a recession's pressures and go bankrupt or close. This can affect entire industries.

The COVID-19 pandemic showed how a global recession can be triggered. Lockdowns, travel restrictions, and supply chain problems disrupted businesses worldwide, requiring governments to step in and help.

Identifying the causes and indicators of a recession

By understanding these causes and economic indicators, people and policymakers can take timely action to prevent or deal with recessions and highlight the value of informed decision-making in our connected global economy.

Causes of a recession

Recessions are not random occurrences, they often stem from a combination of economic factors, financial market fluctuations, and global events. By understanding these causes, people are often better able to anticipate a looming recession and mitigate its effects. 

First and foremost, recessions often have roots in economic imbalances, such as excessive debt, inflationary pressures, or overproduction. When these imbalances become unsustainable, they can trigger a recession.

On that note, the health of financial markets and the housing sector is closely tied to the overall economy. The bursting of housing bubbles and disruptions in financial markets, like banking crises, can set the stage for economic downturns.

And lastly, events like geopolitical conflicts, natural disasters, or global health crises, as witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic, can have ripple effects that lead to recessions. After all, the global economy is interconnected. 

Economic indicators that signal a recession

Economic indicators act as early warning signals, helping us identify the onset of a recession. These act as data points that provide insights into the state of an economy and serve as barometers for assessing economic health.

Below are several examples of key indicators:

Yield curve inversion

This occurs when short-term interest rates surpass long-term rates, often signalling an impending recession.

Unemployment rate

A rising unemployment rate can indicate economic distress as businesses cut jobs in response to slowing growth.

Consumer confidence index

A drop in consumer confidence can foreshadow reduced spending, which can lead to economic contraction.

Stock market performance

Plummeting stock market indices can signal investor pessimism about future economic prospects.

Recessions vs depressions

We’ve all heard of The Great Depression in the 1930s, but was this a recession or a depression? 

A depression is a severe and long-lasting economic downturn. It's marked by extensive declines in various economic sectors, often lasting for years or even decades. Much like recessions, depressions bring widespread unemployment, significant drops in consumer spending and business investments, and a massive decrease in GDP.

However, they differ in a number of ways, namely the magnitude and duration, the impact it has on business, jobs, and the GDP, and, typically, how the government responds. 

The key difference between a recession and a depression is how bad and how long they last. Recessions are shorter and less severe, typically lasting a few months to a couple of years. Depressions, on the other hand, are much more extreme and can drag on for years or even a decade or more.

Depressions also hit businesses, jobs, and GDP much harder than recessions. In a depression, businesses struggle to survive, unemployment soars and GDP takes a nosedive to historic lows. While recessions hurt, their effects are usually less severe.

Governments respond differently to recessions and depressions. Depressions often lead to major government intervention, including big stimulus packages, bank rescues, and public projects to kickstart the economy. Recessions may also prompt government action, but it's usually not as extensive or urgent.

How to prepare for a recession

Unfortunately, recessions form an integral part of economic cycles and are inevitable. Fortunately, there are some steps individuals can take to better buffer themselves against the harsh effects of an impending recession. 

Here are two of the most important steps:

Build an emergency fund

Start by creating a sturdy emergency fund. This fund should cover at least three to six months' worth of living expenses and acts as a safety net in case of unexpected job loss or financial crises.

Minimize debt

Simplify your finances by reducing debt and cutting non-essential expenses. Clearing high-interest debts and trimming unnecessary spending can free up resources to tackle more essential needs.

Securing income and job stability becomes equally important as the economy faces uncertainty. Here are several strategies to ensure you maintain job security. 


Invest in your skills and stay adaptable to changing job demands. Continuous learning and gaining skills in demand boost your employability and resilience in a shifting job market.


Cultivate a robust professional network. It can provide job leads, referrals, and opportunities when times are uncertain. Networking increases your chances of finding new employment or additional income sources.

Diversifying sources of income

Explore multiple income streams beyond your primary job. Consider part-time work, freelance opportunities, or passive income ventures. These can help soften the blow of a recession.

In an unpredictable economic world, these steps give individuals and households financial preparedness and adaptable income strategies and can provide a sense of security and resilience in tough economic times.

Closing thoughts

Understanding recessions, its indicators, and its real-world impact is essential. Key points include recognising economic aspects like GDP and understanding how recessions affect businesses. 

Identifying causes and signals empowers proactive responses while distinguishing recessions from depressions clarifies their severity and the need for government intervention. Practical steps, like building emergency funds and upskilling, boost resilience. In an uncertain economic world, knowledge and preparedness are our reliable allies for navigating recessions successfully.


This article is for general information purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal or other professional advice or a recommendation of any kind whatsoever and should not be relied upon or treated as a substitute for specific advice relevant to particular circumstances. We make no warranties, representations or undertakings about any of the content of this article (including, without limitation, as to the quality, accuracy, completeness or fitness for any particular purpose of such content), or any content of any other material referred to or accessed by hyperlinks through this article. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content on our site is accurate, complete or up-to-date.


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