Editor's Choice October 2009

Life In (and After) Our Great Recession

Dashed hopes, less sex, even more Sisyphean labor for women—what the histories of the Depression era tell us about middle-class families in crisis, both then and now

The defining characteristic of the middle classes has always been their orientation toward the future. The Depression ruined schemes for such baubles and pleasures as the new car and the winter vacation. But it also at best disrupted and at worst (and often) destroyed carefully wrought plans for so-called investments in the future: the substantial house in the stable neighborhood, the savings account, and, most important, what was then and remains the cynosure of American middle- and professional-class family life—a college education, or a certain kind of college education, for the children. Even today, that investment largely determines the opportunities parents seize or forgo, the towns they move to, the rhythm of a family’s daily life. The Depression rendered any careful planning for the future, an activity that depends on predictable conditions, all but impossible, or at least crazy-making.

Again, most earners in the middle classes were still employed, but their livelihoods were in daily jeopardy; throughout the country even those at the apex of the professions—doctors and lawyers—saw their incomes drop by as much as 40 percent. Moreover, although professional-class families had invested and saved prudently (or so they thought), many had been ruined. Leaving aside the losses in the stock market, a form of investment overwhelmingly confined to members of the middle and upper classes, throughout America from 1929 to 1932, some 9 million savings accounts were wiped out (savings accounts, too, were largely limited to members of the middle and upper classes, who alone had extra dollars to put away). More important, even those families not ruined knew that their reverses—those gargantuan declines in the values of their homes and portfolios and the all but universal drastic declines in income during what were supposed to be their peak years of wealth-building—were irretrievable. They’d never get back to where they’d been, to the foundation on which just a few years before they had assumed their future would be built (not unlike, say, parents of today who have for years carefully contributed to now-clobbered 529 plans for their adolescents). Disaster was always imminent; the future was at best chancy and diminished. Inescapably, Muncie’s middle classes endured year after year of an emotional state that resembled, as the Lynds put it,

the crisis quality of a serious illness, when life’s customary busy immediacies drop away and one lies helplessly confronting oneself, reviewing the past, and asking abrupt questions of the future.

Such psychological inferences may be squishy, but all of these accounts agree on one workaday detail of middle-class life: the effort to maintain the highest-possible standard of material living in an age of reduced circumstances meant that the physical burden of the new normal fell overwhelmingly on women. The hours of what were then called servants were cut, or those workers were fired altogether (just as is now happening with the hours and jobs of housekeepers, nannies, and—at least here in Southern California—gardeners), but the tasks they performed remained to be done. And “domestic” work that had previously been performed outside the home shifted to the household. Home-baked bread replaced store-bought; home preserving became de rigueur (one of the few bright spots in Muncie’s economy during the Depression’s early years was that its Ball Brothers plant, the country’s largest manufacturer of fruit jars, was blessed with capacity production). Clothes and household items were mended rather than replaced. Today, the twice-weekly takeout dinners from Boston Market or the Whole Foods deli counter, along with the regular expeditions to California Pizza Kitchen or Outback Steakhouse, have been reduced, and children and adults are more frequently brown-bagging their lunches—which means that more meals are being prepared at home. Eighty years ago, it was wives and mothers who overwhelmingly took up the slack. Surprise, surprise: little has changed today.

How observing even more intensive female labor within their households will affect children’s attitudes toward gender roles is impossible to foresee. But if the Depression is any guide, economically induced alterations in family life and habits will have subtle and far-reaching consequences. For instance, because families anxious about spending money curtailed outside activities, the Depression famously drew them more tightly together. Families gardened and used their backyards more (the 1930s saw a renaissance in badminton); in the evenings they gathered around the radio, worked on jigsaw puzzles (another 1930s craze), played cards and, of course, Monopoly (an irony-heavy product of the Depression). And—that free and quintessentially homebody activity—they read. Between 1929, the last year of the boom, and 1933, the nadir of the Depression, Muncie’s public-library circulation more than doubled, as did the average number of books each patron borrowed; today, owing to the recession, libraries are seeing circulation grow by a more modest but still significant 10 to 30 percent. In addition, children’s responsibilities increased: half of all boys in one survey had part-time jobs, and both girls and boys took on more household chores. Whether or not they worked outside the home, these children believed they had productive roles to perform for the family’s betterment, and saw the Depression as a family problem they had to help face—an attitude that pulled them ever more strongly into the family circle.

Children of the Great Depression (1974), by Glen Elder Jr., grew out of another grand sociological project: a longitudinal study that followed the attitudes and outcomes of 167 Depression-era Oakland children through the 1960s. In his assessment of the adult subjects’ values, Elder concluded that Depression-created domestic routines and enlarged responsibilities “made an enduring contribution to views on ‘things that matter’ in life. The one common value across men and women is the centrality of the family.” He drew a direct connection between children’s peculiar domestic life in the Depression and the “familistic aura of the postwar years.” Of course, the Great Recession’s impact on family togetherness hasn’t yet been measured, but because shopping, second only to TV watching, is the country’s favorite form of recreation and people are shopping much less, it stands to reason that family members are spending more time at home—even if this time they’re probably in front of the television and computer screens.

The powerful sense of uncertainty the Depression engendered did more than influence family life; it altered the family’s formation and its very makeup, especially among the planning-prone middle classes. The Depression years, which followed on the heels of what seemed to be the most promiscuous decade in American history, brought with it a chilling of the sexual atmosphere, embodied most noticeably in the sudden shift, following the 1929 crash, to long skirts. Writing about Depression notions of femininity in Only Yesterday, the journalist Frederick Lewis Allen remarked, “The red-hot baby had gone out of style.” Dating, like other outside-the-home activities, became far rarer, and although sex hardly requires a formal date, Depression-era boys, fearing the consequences of impregnating their paramours, came to see girls, in the journalist Caroline Bird’s term, as “booby traps.” Sexual activity is notoriously tricky to measure, but Army doctors reported surprisingly lower VD rates among Civilian Conservation Corps recruits than had been found among World War I draftees. Within marriage, hazy evidence suggests that anxiety and feelings of male inadequacy led to a decline in sex. More conspicuously, the Depression brought about a sharp and sudden drop in marriages—a 31.4 percent decline from 1929 to 1932. Because of its economic consequences, pregnancy came to be seen among women of the middle classes as “a disaster,” Bird recalls. “The first thing intimates asked a pregnant woman was whether she had considered ‘doing something about it.’” Most noticeably, economic insecurity forced couples to have fewer children. For the first time in American history, the birthrate dropped below the replacement level; in the 1930s, the cohort under the age of 19 was proportionately smaller than it had been during any other era.

It will take an effort not unlike that of the Lynds—and then probably decades of scholarly synthesis of the information revealed in such an effort—to gauge the Great Recession’s social impact. But we should bear in mind one way in which the mythology of the Depression might, ironically, make us too optimistic. We have learned from the Depression that the country, eventually, recovers: the Second World War brought economic revival, and the postwar boom followed. End of story. But what’s true for the economy and the country in the broadest sense wasn’t true for the people who endured the Depression. College enrollments dropped (note to still-rich underachievers: this did make getting into college easier for those who could afford it), and careers were delayed and forsaken. For those starting out in the 1930s, opportunities were lost forever. The same may be true for those in the starting blocks now. And you in the midstretch—with your shrunken home values and denuded brokerage accounts, 401(k)s, and 529s—take heed: those anxious Muncie burghers were right. Much of the upper-middle class never had the time to recover all the ground they had lost so quickly, a fact that bestowed on a generation an attenuated and seemingly premature sense of life’s doors closing. As one haute-bourgeois housewife remarked:

The march backwards entails many things that leave a bitter taste. In youth poverty is a novitiate, a preparation for the race; in middle life one is a little terrified by the thought that it is the taking of final vows, that the race has been run.
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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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