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

Not to be faux-populist about it, but although such matters as the electoral turmoil in Iran, the Bernanke/Lewis he said/he said, and the bloating of the list of Oscar finalists (to take the week of June 21) constitute what Charlie Rose and his knowing ilk like to think of as the national discussion, I suspect that an altogether different set of concerns haunts the commuter driving home, is fumbled over on the AYSO sidelines, and is the chief subject across kitchen tables after the kids are put to bed. As Americans confront what has been dubbed the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, they may be forgiven for failing to linger over soon-to-be-old current events, because they recognize that for the first time in their lives they’re in the grip of history. They’re anxious, even terrified, about what that may mean for their daily lives and dreams and—really the same question—for their children’s lives and dreams.

Because this pervasive trepidation is unprecedented in their lifetime, most Americans have reflexively invoked the Depression in their efforts to comprehend their experience. Facile comparisons are offered up and then shot down, and for good reason. Yes, by nearly all measures the Great Depression—Herbert Hoover chose Depression because it didn’t have the same ominous connotations as the terms for previous severe downturns, the now quaint-sounding panic and crisis—was incomparably worse than today’s Great Recession, even if pessimists remind us that in the year following the 1929 crash, Wall Street enjoyed its own bear-market rally and, like President Obama today, Hoover and Roosevelt kept seeing green shoots when the rest of the country correctly saw bare ground.

But in some respects the mythology of the Depression is bleaker than the reality. For all the terrible unemployment figures and searing WPA images of Dustbowl migrants, the typical worker remained on the job, though he had most likely been forced to take a pay cut. In fact, despite the breadlines and the soup kitchens and the Bonus Army, the population emerged from the Depression healthier than ever, thanks largely to government aid and advances in the then-new science of nutrition; the recruits of the Second World War were in every way more fit than the recruits of the First. Any broad historical analogies Americans reach for to make sense of the social, emotional, and quotidian experience of this current crisis will founder on the rocks of historical specificity. How, after all, can an economic crisis that was broadly defined by a tremendous number of unemployed industrial workers illuminate the social ramifications of our post-post-industrial crash, when the population is overwhelmingly middle-class and white-collar? For instance, the precipitous declines in home values and investment portfolios—realities that no doubt weigh heavily on readers of this magazine—feature calamitously in both eras, but in the 1930s a far smaller portion of the population owned houses or equities than does now.

The experience of that small group, however, may prove to be similar to that of today’s vast lower-upper-middle class and upper-middle class, to borrow Orwell’s nicely granulated categories, and a clutch of books probes the Depression experience from that group’s point of view. Most of these books purport to examine a wide range of the population, but because the haute bourgeoisie—a set defined as much by sensibility and educational attainment as by wealth and income—produced testimony that is unusually extensive, compelling, self-aware, and articulate, and because the writers doing the examining no doubt come from the same class, the books end up focusing overwhelmingly on it.

The seminal book—really the starting point for the others—is Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd’s Middletown in Transition (1937). The Lynds, husband-and-wife sociologists, had first descended on “Middletown”—the then-prosperous if stratified city of Muncie, Indiana—with their team of researchers in 1924, during the boom years. For the next 18 months, they dissected the everyday lives, habits, and attitudes of its inhabitants, concentrating on the middle classes. The book that resulted, Middletown (1929), remains a classic of immersive sociology and the most incisive and complete portrait of American bourgeois life in the 1920s. Having taken this minute snapshot, Robert Lynd and a smaller team returned to Muncie 10 years later to see what had changed in the intervening period, which included the darkest years of the Depression. They interviewed the city’s industrial barons, plant workers, and prostitutes; chatted up its teachers, prosecutors, and real-estate agents (although all sources were anonymous, this much of their identities can be gleaned); and pored over its newspaper files and tax rolls. Mostly, they seem to have gossiped, lingered over dinners, and played bridge with the members of a stratum that ran from the “less-secure business class” to the engineers and middle managers, the young married set, and the well-established doctors, lawyers, and executives in the lower-upper class. The fruit of their sojourn, Middletown in Transition, reveals, fact by fact, detail by detail, anecdote by anecdote, the “staggering, traumatic effect” of “the great knife of the depression,” which “cut down impartially through the entire population, cleaving open the lives and hopes of rich as well as poor.”

Today’s members of the middle and professional classes wonder daily what the new normal will be. They’re aware, some vaguely, others acutely, that during this period—the most chastening experience in their lives—their families’ habits and attitudes are changing both conspicuously and imperceptibly. They chew over what further adjustments are prudent; they worry over what additional ones may become necessary. And perhaps most disquietingly, they speculate whether the adjustments they’ve made in the face of unprecedented uncertainty—and whether that uncertainty itself—will become enduring features of their lives. These books suggest answers, some trivial and some profound. The Lynds’ focus on the myriad ways the Depression was altering the lives and spirit of the middle classes makes Middletown in Transition especially enlightening—and in many ways unsettling. Although it certainly chronicles grim want and hunger (though not starvation) among the working class and unemployed middle classes, the dominant themes are emotional: unrelenting fear and dashed hope.

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.