Narrative Analysis: The Complexity of Boom-Bust Adjustment
Complexity in the narratives was most evident when we examined people’s accounts of their lives during both boom and bust periods. Contrary to expectations and given the preference people tend to have for economic booms, participants talked more about the challenges boom times brought to individuals and families rather than the advantages. During boom cycles, there were jobs and good money, but that also meant that fathers/male spouses were away at work for periods of time that lasted days, weeks, or months (all our examples were of men being removed from the family, even though an increasing number of women are now working in the oil and gas industry or in male-dominated professions). Most of the female participants experienced periods as single parents or had to take on extra responsibilities for the household or a farm. This occurred most often during economic booms. For example, one female participant said: “My husband, he works far away though so it’s difficult and he’s also in his own very stressful situation” (Female, age 34). Another said, “It took a while for that adjustment […] so it was hard being at home all the time and you’re with somebody and they’re always gone. So that was hard to adjust” (Female, age 49). For her, ‘adjustment’ came with, on the one hand, being trained as a school bus driver and not only driving her own children everyday, but meeting many parents and expanding her social circle, communicating and socializing on a daily basis. The protective role of social networks is a proven resilience factor, referred to by Richardson (2002) as ‘social reintegration’ (see also Wells 2012). She also talked about her own skills as a single mother before remarrying in “budgeting and managing.” On multiple occasions she underscores how learning to save money and budgeting was a key adjustment factor. In resilience studies, characteristics like self-organization and learning new knowledge have been observed as mediating resilience. The role of learning to adjust was recounted by other participants as well. For example, when men returned from work, the pressure to adapt to stressful schedules did not end. Participants described periods of adjustment following long absences:
When he is home and you do make decisions, you communicate, but it takes a lot to work like, you have to be strong about it […] he was so used to just doing everything his way and I was doing everything mine and then he’d come home and he’d try to change things and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, no’ and so it took a while. (Female, age 49).
Likewise, some participants said that their family acts differently during the periods of time that the father is home; “We have a system in place, when he’s not there and then he comes home” (Female, age 49). However, descriptions of learning and adjustment did not come from women only. In some cases, it was men who talked about the difficulties their jobs caused them in relation to their families. For example, one father said, “I wish I had more time with my son, him being the oldest, could have done things” (Male, age 72). Another man talked about how shift work during boom periods made him emotionally distant: “I think I was a zombie. Yeah. If I was talking to you, I wouldn’t even remember, sometimes, it got pretty bad” (Male, age 72).
Whether it was because of the financial incentives to work long hours, or the necessity to maintain their family, participants described learning to adjust to the demands caused by boom time conditions, on in other words. As one female participant explained: “He’d work out of town a lot and I structured my life so that I could go see him” (Female, age 50). To her, the advantage of her husband’s work was a paycheque “10 times” larger than her salary which made the sacrifices worthwhile. Another participant described the economic advantages of stressful work life as a blessing that demanded compromise: “I feel so blessed. Like, we put our family first. If it meant us going and staying in a hotel with them for a weekend, then we did that because the family unit was really important […] wherever he needed to go, we went” (Female, age 50). In each example, participants described ways they had maintained a sense of cohesion among family members even if the transitions from work to home life caused tension for both spouses and children when work was plentiful and the financial benefits very good. In short, boom cycles stressed residents’ personal lives, but they learned how to adjust, be it by learning new skills (bus driver) and creating broader social circles, or rescheduling family life around the husband or father’s work shift, or simply weighing the benefits of a substantial income over less family time. In each case, the change in their approach of handling the situation did not occur overnight, rather they have developed new coping styles over time.
While we expected bust times to bring narratives of loss and stress as jobs became fewer and the pay lower, the pattern of responses was much more complex. For example, one participant explained the ambivalence experienced during a period of economic contraction: “Dads are at home right now. So, that’s impacting the family in some ways positively but in a lot of ways negatively” (Female, age 50). Such changes disrupted family life, with children and spouses unaccustomed to seeing fathers at home so often. Despite the challenge, this participant said that she thinks during economic downturns, “Societies are putting on a lot more activities for people to be social and be together, for families to be together,” which also represents the developments taking place in the context of social support.
This same ambivalence regarding the advantages and disadvantages of an economic bust was evident in the way men and women described their roles and the need to challenge traditional gender norms in order for families to adapt successfully. A 46-year-old male participant, for example, talked about how he is staying home while his wife makes money as a minister: “I was able to stay home for the first year of my now-4-year-old’s life (…) it was great.” Although he is not the breadwinner of the family any longer, he gets to enjoy family life and raise his children which reflects degrees of positive adaptation. Positive adaptation is usually defined as “success at meeting stage-salient developmental tasks” (Luthar and Zigler 1991). This same pattern was found among other male participants. As one man living common-law with his partner explained:
I’m usually pretty adaptive to change. It has been three times over the last 10 years of this industry that I haven’t been able to work either injury or just the last downfall […] it’s not pleasant because I prefer to work, he prefers to stay home, but we understand that reality is never nice, so that’s what we do. (Male, age 36).
These participants, 46 and 36 years old, are both exemplars for adults’ developmental behavior against challenges, whereby after a period of time they not only learn how to adapt to the unwanted change but also start seeing it not as a merely negative modification.
This developmental change presented itself in other aspects of the participants’ lives as well. Though participants noted that communities pulled together during economic busts, the quality of those interactions changed. Many participants said they had stopped having “drink nights” (going out to a bar with friends) as often as they used to. They mostly attended community events instead, or made greater use of public facilities like libraries and recreational spaces that had low or zero fees. For example, one male participant in his mid-50s said, “I’m starting to attend my church more…becoming more spiritual.” This is not to say that participants did not spend money on alcohol. One participant explained: “I think the liquor stores are busier, none of them have closed down” (Male, age 51). Consistently, we found that when drinking alcohol was part of a participant’s narrative, there was a shift in what it meant depending on whether the economy was doing well or poorly. During bust times, casual drinking changed from an opportunity to socialize to a coping strategy used to cope with feelings of failure. As one participant said: “I think people reach out to different things [during a bust] they feel might be able to help them cope…churches and liquor stores” (Male, age 30). Both spirituality and alcohol consumption can initiate participation in communal activities, where the individual can seek comfort in the company of others.
With regard to participants’ work lives, economic busts changed how much people earned, but did not improve work-life balance. As one participant said: “They paid you well [during the boom] but there was a lot of what I call criminal exchange, like, we want you to work, you know, 12–14 h days, 7 days a week until you’re done, and yes you got paid” (Female, age 50). Though the experience may have had its advantages (e.g., more discretionary income), bust periods offered an opportunity to slow down and recuperate. As another participant said: “When there is a boom, you work till you drop […] because you never know when it’s not going to be there” (Female, age 56). Busts brought opportunities to establish balance, even if that balance was not explicitly valued.
Examined altogether, people’s experience of family, community, and work lives through both boom and bust economic cycles is complex with multiple and competing narratives that account for the impact of a good or bad economy on how well individuals, families, and communities function. While the substance of the stories men and women in Maple Hill told was the same, the experience of each economic period meant a different set of adaptations and stressors for each gender. We can group the participants’ experiences of both boom and bust economies into three interactive storylines:
Positive storylines: Participants adjusted to the prosperity or the economic downturns having learned that life in a town dependent on the oil and gas industry requires flexibility. Such stories benefited from protective factors such as learning new skills, budgeting, and social networks.
Neutral storylines: Participants accepted that conditions would always be stressful. These stories portrayed a narrative tone which was neither positive nor negative. Life for these people seemed to be always the same.
Negative storylines: Family and community life is negatively affected by both good and bad economic conditions, with both booms and busts causing spouses to be absent (physically and emotionally). Financial supports are either abundant or missing, with both conditions causing strained social relationships and contributing to substance abuse.
Regardless of which storyline was more dominant in the individual’s narrative, both boom and bust periods demanded a great deal of personal and collective resilience to cope with the stress caused by a changing economy. The importance of both personal and collective resources fits with social–ecological or systemic approaches to resilience that discourage accounts of resilience that report individual strengths without acknowledging that these strengths are invariably intertwined with the strengths of the human and structural systems that individuals are connected to (Ungar and Theron 2020; Masten and Motti-Stefanidi 2020). In our sample, adults’ developmental growth in facing new challenges reflects the role of personal and collective resources.
Analysis of Narratives
In order to better understand the relationship between narrative identity and participants’ resilience, we invited the participants to tell us about their lives in the form of a story (in the last round of the interviews, n = 17). A review of the plotlines, narrative tone, and the degree of complexity in the participants’ responses became the basis for an analysis of narratives and a deeper understanding of resilience processes in this unique context. For our analysis, we return to McAdams and McLean’s (2013) life-story constructs. Each of the seven aspects of narrative construction and identity development were reflected in the complexity of the stories that participants shared.
All the participants had experienced boom and bust cycles, with many commenting on the level of control they exercised in their lives regardless of economic conditions. For example, some described themselves as very independent: “I have a very different perspective…I did my own thing” (Female, age 39). Another participant said, “I’m, I’m a very uh, dominating person like, you know, I just, like, I said, this is what I’m doing, and I did it” (Female, age 63). Yet another said, “I was a very independent person and I looked after my own stuff” (Female, age 49). These participants all demonstrated a high agentic character reflecting empowerment and self-mastery.
Other participants maintained a more flexible attitude towards the changing economic conditions. For example, one said that “There’s no hard feelings here or anything else, whatever. Any place you make it work… all depends on your attitude” (Male, age 60). This was similar to another response, “It didn’t affect me that way kind of thing, perception, I’m pretty easy-going” (Female, age 56). Elsewhere another interviewee maintained that “Life just throws things at you and you just have to learn to… roll with it” (Female, age 53). Similarly, another said, “The way I looked at it is if you want something I still have to work” (Female, age 55). These participants’ agency stems from their adaptability to change, which can be due to their older age. If in the previous paragraph participants represented a higher self-reliance, in the quotes here there is a more flexible response. One possible explanation can be advanced age. It has been shown that despite the fact that people at older ages are usually exposed to more stressors related to their physical, mental, or social conditions, and as a result may seem more vulnerable, most manage to remain active and to age actively and successfully (Baltes and Freund 2003). Although there can be other reasons for such seemingly age-dependent responses such as cohort effects.
Very few of the participants held a negative attitude towards themselves, and the rare examples of such attitudes were usually expressed with a humorous tone to account for individual challenges. For example, one male participant said, “It’s like it’s kind of funny, my retirement plan is two Big Macs a week, I’m kind of hoping to drop dead some point within the next couple years because like I said I have no savings so… I’ll be so angry if I turn 60 [laughing]” (Male, age 51). Although few of the participants had this sense of humor, among all the interviews, only two participants started their life story negatively. As one explained, “It’d be pretty boring actually” (Male, age 54).
In some cases, participants expressed a belief in higher powers being in charge of their lives. One participant said she “leave[s] it up to the Provider and I do a lot of that too, a lot of self-prayer and a lot of motivational to keep my own” (Female, age 66). Her strong spirituality may stem from her heritage that was reflected in her opening lines: “I’m Metis raised…So, now I’m related to probably every reserve in [the province] […] you get the privileges of the status.” Her optimism is reflected in her sense of belonging: “Even though we’re going through what we are I know that we’ll get through because we have family; we do pull together the best we can.”
The experience of interpersonal connection (which McAdams and McLean  describe as communion) was key to surviving economic cycles. As one participant explained, “It was always my mom. She was my biggest supporter…Even though we were poor, I didn’t feel that we were poor because we had family” (Female, age 63). Another participant said, “We didn’t have much but we were happy, we were together.[…] Ya. And we had love and ya we were safe so that’s really all that mattered” (Female, age 53). This emphasis on specific family members as a protective factor was consistent across the sample. While this fits the emphasis in resilience studies on the protective value of family (Masten 2014), it fits less neatly with understandings that economic pressure, including stressful experiences related to the imbalance between low income and financial demands (Berkowitz 1989), is one of the biggest stress factors in marriages and leads to problems for both individuals and the couple (Conger and Elder 1994).
Redemption & Meaning Making
In our sample, the ability to learn a positive lesson from a negative event (redemption) was common to many participants’ accounts of their lives. For some participants, periods of economic bust brought opportunities for new personal growth and better social cohesion. For example, one participant said, “The big positive is that I get to spend a lot of time with my family…I managed, I was able to stay home for the first year of my now-4-year-old’s life. And it was great, the bonding was just great” (Male, age 46). Although he sees his job loss and economic downturn as a negative state, he is also able to extract a positive outcome from such a situation. Another participant said, “Because my whole life as a child was not poverty but definitely not wealth, right? And I always knew and I didn’t have the stability of two parents […]” (Female, age 53). She used this negative experience to commit to something positive: “I always knew that whoever I would marry had better be a very loving, understanding and family first kind of man and so that’s who I married.” Economic volatility has encouraged robust personalities and a meta-narrative among residents of Maple Hill to explain their lives and the many hardships they have experienced as meaningful. Several participants characterized themselves as competent at handling hard times: “I am optimistic with life, […]you get hit in the head enough times, you kind of figure it out [chuckles]” (Female, age 65). Even poorly resourced single parents showed this same ability to make meaning out of hardship. As one woman said, “Because I’ve been a single parent for over 20 years, I’ve always been aware the need to prepare and not to be um, waiting for the next hand-out, because that hand-out may never come” (Female, age 55). Another explained that her life experience had taught her how to make meaning out of harsh and negative experiences and respect her own self, “You need to, whether you have children or not, you’re valuable, you’re important and whatever value you place on yourself will show on what supports you put around yourself. If you don’t value yourself, you won’t seek out help. I valued myself because I had two kids who I loved dearly” (Female, age 55). Finally, one participant simply said, “Well, I think you know just the concept of boom and bust and the stretch and the squeeze is that you do… you become more resilient or you die.[…] So, I think that it has certainly made me more resilient” (Female, age 49). Such descriptions suggest that adversity can trigger a re-evaluation of life priorities. Whether through a regenerated emotional bond with the family members, or through gaining new perspectives towards finances, or through leaning to appreciate little things in life, most of the participants demonstrated the ability to learn a lesson from difficulties which time and again supports their positive development.
Exploratory Narrative Processing
Under stress many of the participants’ life stories detailed a look back at past challenges while asserting that these challenges produced desirable outcomes. For example, one female participant, age 55, told us about how she chose to fight against an abusive husband, weak health, and very low financial resources: “As a result of that decision 9 years ago, I think I am stronger, I think I have a greater respect for what it means to appreciate life […] don’t give up, keep going, life can be better than you’ve ever seen” (Female, age 55). There is also evidence of meaning making through the highly agentic content of her narrative. She emphasized on multiple occasions how she chose to be a hero in her own story.
Another participant, a 70-year old man, explained why he didn’t leave the oil business as a sensible series of decisions over time, ones he recognized as risky but nevertheless were the best possible ones he could have made under the circumstances. As he said, “There were lots of times I wanted to get out of it but what do you do? You know? I was good at what I did I mean you know so….” While he may be retired, his narrative, like those of many others in Maple Hill, accounted for the boom and bust economy as a challenge from which to learn and grow.
Coherent Positive Resolution
Perhaps it was the participants’ collective emphasis on having a robust personality, or their penchant to narrate stories of personal redemption and growth, but far more of the stories told described coherent positive resolution of crises than despair and failure. As one woman explained, periods of economic downturn had stressed her marriage to a man who could not manage money so much that she had decided to separate from him. After a period of several years, though, she described the growth both she and her husband experienced and their eventual reunification: “I think we grew in that time like yes, we were apart but we grew to be better together” (Female, age 53). Another woman talked about periods of economic challenge but was careful to craft her account of that time as a period of personal transformation: “I guess [it is] humbling when you go to the store and you realize, okay I can only afford this and this and that […] but I… realize over the years that material things aren’t as important as having a roof over your head and a place to live with heat and running water and food” (Female, age 47). Even though economic cycles continued to challenge her and her family, she learned how to cope: “It seems like the cycles have been getting easier kind of. I don’t know if it’s easier or we’re just coping with it better to get through.”
Though less common in the data, participants did occasionally narrate life stories that included positive experiences that turned bad or were ignored. To illustrate, an older woman recounted her regrets that she had not socialized more. “We kind of blew off a lot of our friends, and I don’t know why, […] now, I’m very lonely being a widow, ‘cause, I don’t have any friends [short laugh]” (Female, age 68). Countering this theme of contamination was a general belief in people’s abilities to perceive the positive even in contexts where their future was threatened. As one participant said, “You can make it work or it doesn’t matter what kind of job you have or whatever or what kind of place, you can be living in a palace and if your attitude’s not right” (Male, age 60). It is this pattern of attribution which seemed to buffer the impact of negative life events, even though it required an over-emphasis on agentic qualities of individuals to meet challenges that might be beyond their control.