The Great Depression, a Scarred Generation–and the Coronavirus

Those of a certain age – specifically my age – have had parents who entered young adulthood during the Great Depression, for them perhaps an even more life defining event than the Second World War. I fear that today’s millennials–many of them already saddled with student loan debt–may be in for a similarly traumatic period that will  affect not only their near future but their way forward for decades to come.

For persons in their twenties during the depths of the Depression, dreams were suddenly shattered. My dad graduated from college in 1930 hoping to become a journalist. He worked briefly for a pharmaceutical trade magazine. Then, on the advice of his father, an educator, he went into teaching because it seemed to promise more economic security. In spite of his academic accomplishments, which included a master’s degree in literature and all but a thesis for a doctorate,  it took him a few years to gain full status as an accredited teacher in the New York City school system.  Then, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia cut the pay of teachers by 10 percent, for which my father never, ever forgave him.

My mother had graduated from a teachers’ training school in the late 1920s. But before she could pursue a career in education, the stock market crashed, and the country went into economic freefall. Instead, she worked during the 1930s as a cashier at Walgreen’s, in midtown Manhattan. Her career as an educator was put on hold for several decades. She, her parents and siblings shared an apartment. My grandfather owned a kosher butcher shop in Harlem which did not survive the Depression.

The family, well off during the 1920’s, lost its material wealth, but everyone pitched in. I grew up thinking they were poor, not knowing my mother’s father owned an apartment building in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan, a vacation home in Lake Ronkonkoma, on Long Island, and an automobile with a driver.

The Great Depression defined their lives, and in many cases their livelihoods, affecting them emotionally and psychologically, limiting their career options and financial prospects and making many of their generation risk averse.  When it came time for my sister and me to manage our parents finances, we learned they had 33 different bank accounts—but not one share of stock.  Far too risky!

Born in 1942, I’m a “war baby,” not a Baby Boomer, but I’m also a byproduct of the Depression, reluctant to take risks, even when I should have done so, and parsimonious with my money, even when I didn’t have to be. I’m the one who is always counseling prudence. In some ways, that’s been a good trait that has helped me, and I hope others close to me, in uncertain times. On the other hand, my fiscal conservatism (not to be confused with the political kind) means I’m often not that much fun. Devil may care just isn’t me, for better or worse.

Which brings me to today. My two millennial sons are hanging on, one in Chicago, where he works for the now closed public schools, the other in New York, where he covers transit for the New York Post.  Many of his stories are heart wrenching, about MTA and other transportation workers suffering—and dying—on the front lines.  With his reporting he is performing a public service. But newspapers are also suffering, and many have already or will soon become casualties of the coronavirus pandemic.  Both sons are careful spenders, which makes me proud and less concerned. My Gen X son in Richmond, a computer techie who has worked from home for years, also learned fiscal prudence from his dad.

Somehow, hopefully, we will all get through this. But not without some indelible scars.

During the Great Depression, America found in FDR’s “Fireside Chats” a calming, reassuring voice.  Now, we watch another New York governor (as FDR was before he became president) who provides facts, empathy and straight-talk without self-aggrandizing spin that emanates from the president at his daily White House “briefings.” No one knows how long the lockdown will last, but surely its effects on all of us will be long lasting. How can they not be?


  1. Andrew mayer on April 14, 2020 at 11:50 am

    My mother was a graduate of Syracuse u with most of her family. In the Great Depression she and her cousin rented a small manhattan apt. Battled roaches and in between scarce jobs sold apples for five cents on the street corner. She finally went black upstate to family became a radio host there and in 1938 wrote dumbo the flying elephant which Disney bought and made into a movie. She met my father a journalist with the wall st journal in dc during the war at the war production bd and he then went overseas to get materials in Congo for the atom bomb, later going to wartime holland and v2 blitz London to build Europe up for postwar recovery. He married mom in 1944 at the Pierre hotel in nyc and they were married for 55/years but always counseled to have a savings account hand spare cash on hand for the next economic downturn. I have like you halwnays thought this way to survive and my wife the same and our millenihual actor musician son is following along and surviving current virus blues. Your blog was poignant in that parents who loved thru he Great Depression remember selling apples on the corner an,d bread lines, then we two ration cards. Be well an,d prosper. I am recovering from c19 in quarantine and my wife is working remotely here in Staten Island. Son is based in Harlem with girlfriend and two dogs, Andy mayer

  2. Brooke Stoddard on April 14, 2020 at 2:59 pm

    A nice reflection, Gene. Our parents’ generation is sometimes called The Greatest Generation. I won’t quibble: They ground through the Depression, won the war and forged the peace. But I think a more appropriate term would be The Unlucky Generation. My father and mother enjoyed comfortable childhoods in the ’20s, then were slammed by the Depression and suffered the depredations and dangers of the war; unlucky indeed. Afterward there was scant housing, women were suppressed and for the next 15 years while they were raising children they not only had to look back to the horrific depravities of humanity but also worry over the chances of a nuclear war.

  3. Sheryl Stolberg on May 10, 2020 at 4:42 am

    Thanks for writing this, Gene. Very sobering, but it articulations my own fears for my kids.
    Stay safe. Be well.

    • Gene Meyer on May 10, 2020 at 12:55 pm

      Thank you for your note. Same to you.

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