Children Of The Great Depression By Glen H. Elder, Jr.
CHAPEL HILL -- "Sweet are the uses of adversity," counsels Shakespeare in "As You Like It." Social psychological research tends to confirm the poet's observation, albeit with certain reservations. Untoward circumstances such as natural disasters may often stimulate individual competence and group cohesion; adversity may also, of course, produce panic and demoralization. Glen Elder's scrupulous and provocative account of the life course of people who were children during the Great Depression of 1929-1939, and came to maturity at the outset of World War II, offers a convincing story of survival, endurance and achievement.
Born in 1921, this sample of Oakland, Calif. residents experienced economic privation, some severe and some negligible, followed by military service for men and homefront coping for women. They then enjoyed the robust postwar economy. The men, notably, were advantaged in many cases by the higher education provided by the "G.I. Bill." This act was perhaps the single most effective piece of social legislation in American political history, simultaneously a boon to individual careers and a dramatic upgrading of the nation's supply of human capital.
This book was first published in 1974, and the present anniversary edition proves that the study holds up remarkably well over a quarter of a century. What was original then, and is still unfortunately uncommon today, is the effort to link the particulars of individual lives to the vast currents of historical change. Much psychological study continues to treat individual behavior as if the person lived in an historical vacuum; many historical narratives lose the individual in the sweep of massive forces. But here Glen Elder takes seriously the injunction of C. Wright Mills to focus sociological inquiry on the intersection of biography with history. Employing a sophisticated, many-faceted approach, he situates the children (and their fathers, mothers, and classmates) of the Depression in the turbulent times of their lives: how do their trajectories of growth, their emergent selfhoods and unfolding careers, play out under the impress of economic calamity, world war and the prosperous Cold War America of the '40s, '50s and beyond?
The story, in brief, is one of resilience and coping, of boys and girls who, if they could not quite master fate, could meet it resourcefully. Their portrait is of course not entirely positive: their parents often suffered a great deal, from material want in household, some fathers' loss of status and authority, some mothers' forced assumption of domestic dominance; some children were thrust into early employment or household responsibility, and some developed mixed or negative images of their beleaguered parents. Yet they managed well on the whole, not least because in life as in politics and stagecraft, timing is everything. Elder notes that this age group were young enough not to undergo the stressed responsibilities of adults and old enough to have passed through critical early stages of development and to have assumed pre-adult awareness: "If one were to select an optimum age at which to pass through the Depression decade, it would not differ much from that of the Oakland sample."
As is so often the case in social research, this effort suffers from limited evidence on a single population. It is exceedingly difficult to trace out causal relationships, and the author's heroic analytical forays, although couched in serviceable prose, occasionally mire the reader in thickets of detailed argument. Yet the description is moving and significant. We are called to explore "the implications of sacrifice and accomplishment in the biography of Depression cohorts. This biography is unique in the sense that widespread hardship, which enhanced the value of material goods and the desire for children, was soon followed by an economic upswing that often turned these values into reality. In one life span, Americans had moved from scarcity to abundance, from sacrifice to the freedom made possible by prosperity."
Those of us who were in fact the children of the Great Depression and the young adults of World War II may be said to have weathered the old Chinese curse; we have lived in interesting times. We may even be moderately proud of it all.