The great depression paradox: Children survived, then thrived
Millions of parents around the world are fretting about the impact of the lockdown on their children. This article from Bloomberg should reduce parental anxiety a notch or two: “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 ramified 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….
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 amidst 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….”
So why do kids who go through hardship become more successful, more driven adults? “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.””
Other researchers found similar findings in analyses of British kids who lived through World War II. What doesn’t kill us, does seem to make us stronger.