The Great Depression destroyed the life chances of future generations – the corona crash will do the same for us
The colossal 20th century downturn created permanent, stress-induced health problems that never went away. With a barely functioning welfare system, it’s only a matter of time before history repeats itself
Compared to their grandparents, the effects of Covid-19 on our children will be relatively small. But only in the short term.
In the longer term, the effects of the pandemic – or more accurately its economic consequences – are likely to resemble those experienced by children who grew up in the Great Depression. Early exposure to economic shock and financial insecurity, the depression demonstrates, has an interesting effect on their resilience and their attitudes to risk and opportunity. As the business writer Micha Kaufman said about a previous economic crisis, “more people became millionaires during the Great Depression than just about any other period in America’s history ... Desperate times force innovative thinking”. The children whom the depression forced into the gutter were looking at the stars, and had the hunger to reach for them.
Well, that’s the myth, anyway. If we put aside the easy soundbites about “pressure makes diamonds”, we find the hard evidence: people who grew up in the insecurity and stress of the depression actually became less confident about the future, more risk-averse and less opportunity-seeking. Less entrepreneurial. The opportunity-averse mindset (and permanent, stress-induced health problems) that the depression created in children reduced their life chances, and never went away.
I spent the last three years working with people who are “reaching for the stars”: people from low-income families experiencing “upward social mobility” as, for example, an actor, a billionaire entrepreneur, a politician or a member of other “elite professions”. When I interviewed these people, it soon became apparent that they overwhelmingly had not experienced “economic shock”: they grew up with family incomes that were low but secure. Some had fathers working in industries that once offered working class “jobs for life” (shipbuilding, manufacturing, the Royal Mail). Some owed their financial stability to the sheer tenacity of mothers who took whatever jobs they could find. In cases where their parents were made redundant, family incomes were maintained by benefits at a good enough level for long enough to allow them to find another job that offered a steady income. It’s easier to reach for the stars if you’re not clinging on to what you have.
Rishi Sunak and his colleagues are currently dealing with (some of) the effects of short-term economic shock, but soon they will need to address the economy’s longer-term ability to recover and avoid relapse, to give our nation’s – and our families’ – finances the sort of resilience necessary for our children to develop and pursue their aspirations.
The corona crash is showing us where we lack resilience. Large numbers of families have desperately insecure incomes: depending on self-employment, or contract work, or employers who are willing and able to lay off workers at short notice.
Those whose incomes have been hit in the last few weeks are now turning to a social security system that is meant to support us in situations like these but has, over the last four decades, become too slow, too inadequate and too hostile. To compound matters, decision-makers in Westminster and Whitehall (who disproportionately come from unusually privileged backgrounds) have not understood the implications of this: that large swathes of Britain, extending way beyond a minority of the “deprived” families, lack the security, the savings or the sick pay to take time off work or endure a forced suspension of work.
These weaknesses make us vulnerable to the further economic shocks that we know are yet to come. Other diseases will emerge as a result of what the World Health Organisation calls the “antimicrobial resistance crisis”. There will be disruption arising from whatever Brexit deal (or no deal) we now have only months – amid an existing crisis – to arrange. The “fourth industrial revolution” will cause profound changes to working patterns, making some jobs obsolete and creating others. There will be huge dislocations in order to adapt to (or – hopefully – mitigate) the climate crisis. Our level of resilience, and our children’s life chances, will determine the extent to which these changes are experienced as risks or opportunities.
To turn change into opportunity we need a social security system that quickly provides enough income, and continues to provide it for enough time to allow us to rethink and retrain, without hounding us to accept any job regardless of whether it gives our family the security they need. We need mandatory “breathing space” for families struggling with debts. And we need an industrial strategy that turns away from our previous “race to the bottom” approach to tax and regulation that created high levels of low-quality employment, towards favouring industries that create high-quality jobs that will not be swept away in the next wind.
Up to now, the prospects for introducing such measures have been poor, hampered by wrong-but-widespread myths about social security and an aversion to strategic approaches or substantial investments in industrial policy. But now, large swathes of middle Britain are realising that they too are more vulnerable than they thought, and policies are being introduced that would have been unthinkably radical a few weeks ago. An opportunity has opened up to make the case for going beyond emergency repairs and building long-term resilience: “desperate times” as they say, “force innovative thinking”.
Duncan Exley is author of ‘The End of Aspiration? Social Mobility and Our Children’s Fading Prospects’