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?