How the Great Depression Affected the Labor Force

My last post reminded me of an interesting conversation I had with my mother a couple of weeks ago.  My mother grew up in the 1950s in one of those idyllic small towns that populate the imaginations of liberals and conservatives alike: walkable, neighborly, utterly safe.  My grandfather, who owned a gas station, used to have my 12-year old mother bring the week's take, which could run into the five figures, to the bank several blocks away.  It was a prosperous, utterly middle class place full of farmers and hard-working civic-minded small businessmen--and their hard-working, civic-minded wives--where no one made millions, and no one went hungry.


That town doesn't exist any more.  The decline of western New York had already begun when my mother was young, though it took a few more decades before the economic rot became visible: the Erie Canal was supplanted by the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the late 1950s, and the invention of air conditioning made warmer climes much more attractive than the snowy north.  All the ambitious people in my mother's high school class left town, even the region.  The outmigration has only accelerated since then; every year, it gets poorer and older.

This is not exactly novel.  But my mother suggested something that I hadn't thought of: the only reason that she was raised in that picture-perfect specimen of Americana was that the Great Depression had prevented my grandfather from leaving.  He was an ambitious man--he worked his way up from a poor dirt farm, through a five-year stint delivering groceries, and into the ownership of a successful gas station.  In ordinary times, he would have left town to seek his fortunes somewhere bigger (like my great-grandmother's cousin, Frank Gannett, who left a nearby town to go to Cornell and eventually founded the eponymous newspaper chain.)

But you don't pick up and move to a distant city when unemployment is running at 25%; my grandfather, born in 1915, came of age during the deepest part of the Great Depression.  He stayed home where he had family who could help him find a job, and take care of him if things didn't work out.  By the time the Great Depression really ended, he had a fledgeling business and a family.  He wasn't going anywhere.  Neither were the other men of his generation, who had carved out spots for themselves in the local economy.  They sustained the prosperity of the town for a couple of decades beyond where it should have lasted.  And I suspect that outside of the Dust Bowl, that's a pretty common story.

I've also heard it suggested that the Depression had a related impact on city government workforces--something my mother herself remarked upon (before she had kids, she had worked for both the State and the City of New York).  According to her, and other people I've talked to, it was quite common in the 1970s to encounter remarkably bright, talented older workers at all levels of government.  In the depths of the Depression, they had taken local government jobs for the stability; by the time the Depression ended, they weren't going anywhere.  They were not replaced with the same caliber of workers--by the 1980s, when the previous generation was ready to retire, those kinds of people had opportunities elsewhere, so even if top-notch ambitious people did apply, they usually were not planning to make a career of the civil service.

This actually might explain why people were so much more willing to trust government in the 1950s and 1960s than they are now: that was the era when government really was staffed with the "best and the brightest" at senior levels.  The subsequent brain drain into the private sector decreased the quality of services and planning, which in turn made people hostile to the idea of more services and planning.

Obviously there's no way to prove this--but the anecdotal story makes a lot of sense.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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