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The Great Depression paradox: children survived, then thrived

New York – While there’s still much we don’t know about the health effects of the coronavirus on children, there’s a growing consensus about the psychological damage it has already inflicted. From the disruption of schooling to forced quarantines to the trauma of watching parents lose their jobs, the pandemic threatens to become what’s being described as a once-in-a-generation disaster.

These concerns should be taken seriously, but so should the history of prior disruptions. Collective crises can sometimes have paradoxically positive effects on children, building character as much as destroying it.

Skeptical? Perhaps it’s time to re-read the classic longitudinal study “Children of the Great Depression.” Written by sociologist Glenn Elder, it mined data first collected in a study of 167 adolescents living in Oakland, California, in the 1930s. This cohort, born in 1920 and 1921, went from the prosperity of that decade to the economic calamity that followed it.

The study amassed staggering amounts of data on every single individual, their other family members, their psychological profile, their household income and expenditures, and social lives. Subsequent researchers tracked the kids into their 60s and beyond.

Elder’s contribution was to actually do something with the material that viewed these lives over the long run. He coded and analyzed the information that had been gathered, comparing different cohorts by measures such as social class and the economic hit sustained by the family. Then he compared how these experiences ran through these individuals’ lives as they grew up and started families of their own.

Many of these children directly experienced the ravages of the Great Depression: Parents lost jobs, families lost social status and downward mobility was commonplace, though some families largely escaped unscathed. Those not so fortunate tried, often unsuccessfully, to adapt: Mothers often took on jobs outside the house to help make ends meet, for example, while fathers took on menial work well below their training.

These changes drove additional shifts: Many girls assumed significant responsibilities within the home in their mother’s absence, while boys sought to work at part-time jobs. All of this was accompanied by want, deprivation and even hunger on a scale that most contemporary Americans would find unthinkable.

At the time, conventional wisdom held that these experiences would scar children for life. One psychoanalyst from the 1930s cited the “devastating effects of the breakdown of morale in parents,” and predicted that this generation would suffer permanent anxiety, fear, discouragement and loss of confidence. Simply put, they would never fully recover.

But that’s not what actually happened. Yes, Elder found that these children who grew up amid economic deprivation — defined as a loss of household income of 35 percent or more — carried the scars of their childhood. For example, they were more likely to exhibit anxieties about their social status and they worried more about the opinion of their peers than children who didn’t experience the same deprivation.

But what was far more striking about Elder’s findings was the fact that economic deprivation was correlated with greater success. As the boys in the study became men, they moved up the occupational ladder more quickly and aggressively than their more fortunate counterparts; they also took advantage of educational opportunities more readily as well. While this effect was most pronounced among middle-class children, working-class boys exhibited some of these same patterns.

The fate of the girls was different, though no less interesting. As they reached adulthood, girls from deprived backgrounds tended to gravitate toward careers as housewives — a function, Elder speculated, of the roles they had assumed in childhood. But in general, these same women tended to marry men from a higher social class than women who had escaped the worst of the Great Depression. This was a kind of success, at least by the sexist standards of the 1950s.

Finally, both men and women who sustained deprivation as children exhibited higher scores on psychological tests that measured resilience, determination and self-confidence. They also tended to be less defensive. Finally, they reported greater contentment and happiness later in life.

Elder explained these findings by noting that for boys, the experience of looking for part-time work and contributing to the family income pulled them toward adulthood more quickly than their counterparts, fueling a drive and focus that paid off. Something similar happened with girls, who shouldered adult responsibilities at a relatively early age and then moved seamlessly into raising families of their own.

Elder concluded that the Great Depression had effectively deprived the children of a childhood while setting them up for long-term success. As he concluded, “It seems that a childhood which shelters the young from the hardships of life consequently fails to develop or test adaptive capacities which are called upon in life crisis.”

Something similar can be glimpsed in studies of other kinds of collective traumas, such as war. In the wake of World War II, for example, researchers were somewhat mystified to learn that children in Britain who had grown up under near-constant bombing showed little to no long-term trauma from the experience. The exceptions, oddly enough, were the children shipped to the countryside — in order to spare them trauma. These kids suffered from a host of mental health issues created by forcibly separating them from their parents.

These and other studies confirmed that material deprivation — to say nothing of bombings and other horrors — has far less of an impact on children than we instinctively believe. And in crises that force otherwise sheltered children to grapple with reality in a constructive, focused fashion, they may well produce happier, healthier adults. Such individuals may not enjoy the privileges of the “extended adolescence” that now defines younger generations, but they may ultimately gain something that more fortunate children never experience.

If so, there may yet be a silver lining to the cloud that has settled over the country.

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg Opinion.

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