Great Depression Syndrome Redux

My parents, like Susanne’s mother, did not make physical gestures of affection. They also didn’t play with us, worry about whether we were bored, buy organic food for us, drive us around to practices and lessons, try to protect us from cuts and scrapes, or demand to know where we were at every moment of the day. There are two reasons for this approach to raising kids: (1) They were too busy working, my father at his job and my mother at running the house, and (2) they had no experience with “hands-on parenting.”

Great Depression, soup lineMy parents had lived through the Great Depression from 1929 to 1941 and the experience left them with scars—mental, emotional and occupational. Like many people of their generation, they demonstrated what I call Great Depression Syndrome (GDS).

The Five Tenets of Great Depression Syndrome 

  1. Avoid debt. Don’t buy anything you don’t have the money to purchase. Credit cards are the work of the devil.
  2. Be frugal. Patch up, repair, make do and purchase something new only when absolutely necessary. Waste nothing.
  3. Work hard. Life is tough and no one will cut you a break. The government will not help. You make your own opportunities.
  4. Keep your job. Hang on to the job you have even if you hate it and it doesn’t pay much because you may never get another one. Ever.
  5. Adults run the house. Your children do what they’re told, (Because I said so), entertain themselves without adult participation, play with their friends without adult supervision, treat adults with respect, watch TV (black and white) only when allowed, and do their homework without being reminded or (mostly) tutored.

The four of us had very little sympathy for GDS and considered their behavior old-fashioned, constricted, and fearful. For our generation, the world was bigger, brighter, and filled with opportunity. If we couldn’t find that opportunity in Somerset, Massachusetts, we would leave and seek it elsewhere. Three of us did exactly that. We put ourselves through college and then spread out across the country. I went to New York City, one brother migrated to Maryland and the other built a business in Louisiana.

What We Learned 

Yet we could not help absorbing some of those GDS lessons that we observed as children—and I’m glad we did. Even when my husband and I were starting out with salaries that would be a joke today and student debt to pay off, we saved money and lived frugally. I didn’t become the Leftover Queen by inclination—my early training about making do and avoiding waste paved the way. In the eighties, I shook my head as friends and colleagues took out Home Equity Loans and then blew the money on ski equipment, boats, and fancy vacations. Instead, we planned for retirement and saved for it, even if it meant giving up some of the luxuries that my friends enjoyed.

Working hard also came naturally—I worked from the time I was seventeen until I reached 65, with two breaks for maternity leave and then more layoffs than I ever wanted to experience. But being out of work was a job in itself. I put in seven to eight hours a day working to find my next job. Being unemployed is not the same as being on sabbatical.

Then the Great Recession hit and, for many the cycle is repeating itself. Too many people in many industries can’t find work at the level of skill, authority and compensation that they had before. With the extension of unemployment benefits terminated for millions, they will do the only thing they can do—take whatever jobs are available even if it means being underemployed.

Jobs Exported Per Year, Business Insider, Federal ReserveThe Industry of Opportunity 

When I first got into high tech, it was the industry of opportunity. People worked very hard because they wanted to get rich and saw that it could be done. I was fortunate enough to leverage that opportunity at several companies to put the kids through college and build up our nest egg.

Unfortunately, a combination of Sarbanes-Oxley, offshoring, the North American Free Trade Agreement’s “giant sucking sound,” and greedy executives put an end to that ride. A lot of people in high tech today are tired, discouraged, and clinging to what they have even if they hate it because when that job goes away, they may never get another one. Ever. That’s particularly true for unemployed folks over 50.

Proud workers, educated workers, hard workers who never thought they’d use Food Stamps or any other kind of government assistance have taken whatever help they can get and now, with yesterday’s vote, even food assistance is greatly reduced.

The Scars Abide

The scars left by the Great Recession will affect a different generation. Whether those lessons will be absorbed remains to be seen and a lot depends on the world the next generation inherits. Will it be bright, optimistic and full of opportunity? Or will it be a scramble to patch together “chunks” of work while an indifferent government watches people go hungry.

This isn’t he post that I planned to write today but one thought just led to another. I’m hoping to see some light at the end of the tunnel—as high tech was for job creation when American manufacturing migrated out of the country. This may be the winter of our discontent and we’re waiting for the optimism of spring and sunlight and warmth.

Ideas, anyone?

3 thoughts on “Great Depression Syndrome Redux

  1. Although my parents were young through the great depression, they lived by many of the thoughts you described. They never thought to encourage us (5 kids) to do extra-curricular activities at school and just hoped we would not get pregnant or get someone pregnant. Perhaps extra-curricular activities would have helped, because my older 3 siblings did just that. Feeling the heat, I left at 16, and they didn’t protest. It was a harsher start than I would ever have admitted to them.

    But my point is, you don’t have to live through the great depression to have the syndrome. I did unbelievable well over the years given my start, and I owe it to motivation from being so broke for a while I did some things I’m not so proud of. The result, however, is that I am afraid to spend it because I fear being in that place again. That’s the syndrome.

    • Thank you for that perspective, Libby. I guess the only difference is that your unfortunate experience was personal but, for “The Greatest Generation” the Great Depression affected an entire generation. I hope you are well and happy now.

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