In November 1929, days after a stock market crash in New York sent shock waves through the global financial system, the Economist optimistically assured its British readers, “The material prosperity of the United States is too firmly based, in our opinion, for a revival in industrial activity — even if we have to face an immediate recession of some magnitude — to be long delayed.” That caveat was the first known use of the “r” word to describe a temporary slowdown of industrial activity — and not the last time it would feel hopelessly inadequate to describe the event taking place. In the United States, that “recession of some magnitude” would plunge the country into economic distress for a decade, obliterate the livelihoods of millions of Americans, and eventually lead to the creation of the modern American welfare state. Its effects abroad would be even more profound: the rise of fascism, another catastrophic world war, the fundamental reordering of global politics. The optimists were a little more reserved this time around. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the U.S. recession technically began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, though it certainly doesn’t feel over for the more than 8 percent of American workers who are still unemployed. But of course, the “Great Recession” has long since gone beyond its technical definition to become a shorthand for the era — one in which millions around the world are out of work and long-dominant institutions and ideas may never recover their credibility.
The downturn has demonstrated the dangers of unregulated financial speculation, upended governments from Reykjavik to Cairo, and may yet prove the undoing of one of the late 20th century’s most audacious undertakings — the political and economic integration of Europe after centuries of war and mistrust. Still, the creative destruction unleashed by the crisis has had its upside too. For all the losers who have suffered over the last four years — the presidents and CEOs who have fallen from power, the workers searching for work — others are emerging from the crisis stronger than ever before. So from food trucks to Tinseltown moguls, climate skeptics to declinist pundits, here’s our look at some of the biggest winners from this period of distress and dislocation. McDonald’s franchises and makeup counters, online education and the superrich who got us into this mess in the first place, might not seem like obvious beneficiaries of the crash, but at a time when the future still seems dangerously uncertain, these are the closest things out there to sure bets.