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Career Advice From the Great Depression

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Everyone is anxious—even with the economic recovery—about being able to find a job or having upward mobility once they’re employed. Things are better in the federal workforce, but still not ideal. The 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) data reveals that only 60 percent of feds feel their talents are well-used, and only 37 percent are satisfied with their opportunity to get a better job in their organization.

But this isn’t the first time that Americans, and especially young Americans, have faced diminished career prospects. The situation was much more dire during the Great Depression. Can we learn anything from that time? Can we apply any career advice to today’s problems? I’ve reviewed some of the historical advice to find these lessons:

Feeling Worried and Ashamed Is Normal

Scholars of the Depression note that the crash left “mass befuddlement,” which was followed by crises of identity that lasted for years. Americans had been raised to believe that, if they worked hard, they’d be secure; losing that certainty was incredibly hard.

We look back on that period and know that change was coming. But at the time, there were many who thought the Depression was the new normal. Despite the many articles about how young people today are somehow different because of the things they focus on, there are many things they have in common with their grandparents and great-grandparents, explains Mary C. McComb in Great Depression and the Middle Class: Experts, Collegiate Youth, and Business Ideology.


Be More Than Your Work

The problem of work-life balance is not new. Research during the 1930s showed that working adults, usually men at the time, felt that they lost themselves when they lost their jobs, or a sense of a career path. In Retiring Men: Manhood, Labor, and Growing Old in America, 1900-1960, Gregory Wood discusses how this caused depression and led to them withdrawing from their families and lives.

The lesson: No matter how you manage your working life, it’s important to stay connected to all of the other things that make you who you are. This is true whether you’re fully employed, underemployed, adrift, or unemployed.

Take Risks and Try New Things

It can be easy to get into a bunker mentality when things get tough. The good news is that when times get tough, there’s less to lose from failing. Think about radically different paths or ideas to get out of a dead-end job or career situation. Talk to new people, try a new field, or think about moving.

Hamilton Cravens and Peter Mancall, in Great Depression: People and Perspectives, remind us that hundreds of thousands of people during the Great Depression were willing to hop onto trains and hitchhike around the country looking for work. It’s pretty likely that nothing new you could do would be as risky as that.

Bottom line: no matter what problems we face, we can always learn from those who have gone before. Good luck!

About the Author
Joseph Maltby is the director of research for Young Government Leaders, an association of young leaders in government which seeks to provide an authentic voice for that generation in public service. He also creates short educational videos on YouTube covering government and policy issues.  He is a federal employee working on federal retirement issues.  
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