6 Lessons From the Great Depression Carried by Today’s Seniors

6 Lessons From the Great Depression Carried by Today’s Seniors

Have you ever noticed that we sometimes do things just because that’s the way our mom or dad did it? Traditions large and small get passed down through the generations, and sometimes no one knows where those traditions started – but they work for us and for our families, so we pass them down to the next generation.

Those who lived through the Great Depression had a unique set of traditions to pass down to their families.


Did you ever catch your parents saving plastic bread bags or the twist-ties that hold them closed? How about someone who never let go of an article of clothing but instead patched it up time and time again? When the day came that they could no longer patch it up, it was turned into rags for cleaning and served that new purpose for years.


Attitudes about money were passed down too. Today, stories abound of the men and women who lived through the Great Depression and later passed away with millions in the bank. They had lived so frugally that no one ever suspected they had much money at all. That’s because they had learned the hard lesson that pinching pennies could mean the difference between having a good meal and going hungry. Careful saving was deemed essential so they could have a safety net, just in case.


A lot of things have changed in the near-century since the Great Depression shook up the world. But some things haven’t, and that includes the solid lessons many Americans learned from that time.


The Great Depression in a Nutshell


It took only ten weeks to change everything.


According to the Library of Congress, the Great Depression began when the stock market crashed in 1929.1 In a period of just over two months, some stocks plummeted in value while others lost their worth gradually, resulting in stocks on the New York Stock Exchange losing 50% of their value. The downhill slide continued, and soon it was affecting everything from the largest businesses in the nation to the tiny mom-and-pop stores in rural areas.


Unemployment skyrocketed. By 1932, there were simply not enough jobs to go around and the jobs that were available paid a pittance. According to the FDR Presidential Library & Museum, 25% of Americans were unemployed in 1933.2 To put that in perspective, today’s unemployment rate hovers around 3.5%.3


And those who did keep their jobs saw their income drop by about 42%.


The money that people had saved for a rainy day was mostly gone. By 1933, almost 50% of the banks in the United States had failed outright. Today, there are protections for your money through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). It was established in 1933 to try to avoid the very problem that led to the loss of all that money in the first place.4


But when the Depression hit, there was no FDIC, and thus no protection at all. That meant that when banks failed, everyone who used those banks lost their money. A lifetime of careful savings could be wiped out overnight, leaving a family with only the cash they had on hand.


To say that times were hard is an understatement.


Lessons that Echo through Generations


Society learned a great deal from that trying time. Much has been written about the economic impact and how it affected national and global markets, employment, business practices, and much more. But for most people, the impact of the Great Depression was immediate and felt right there at the kitchen table, as struggling parents tried to figure out how to feed and clothe their kids.


And though some of those valuable lessons seem to have been forgotten, the following still hold strong with today’s seniors and elderly adults.


1.      Everything Has More Use Than You Think


So much in our society today is disposable. One-use items are the norm rather than the exception. But during the Great Depression, there was no such luxury. You never threw something away; it could always be used for another purpose.


Scraps of fabric could become a rug to keep the home warmer during the winter. Bread bags could be used over and over again to store a variety of food items. Leather, cardboard, and even thin strips of wood could be used to create new soles for worn-out shoes. Scraps of things that were normally thrown out, such as corn husks, could be used to fashion everything from dolls for children to bedding that kept those kids warm on the coldest nights.


Though we are surrounded by a throw-away mentality today, it’s a sure bet you remember seeing your parents or grandparents keep things that seemed to have no value at all. If you ever opened a cabinet to find countless plastic butter containers stacked high or marveled at that tall stack of “useless” newspapers in the corner, you encountered a lingering lesson from the Great Depression.


And who knows? As traditions get passed down through the years, maybe now you’re the one who hesitates before tossing out those plastic food containers.


2.      Get to Know Your Neighbors


One of the beautiful things to come out of that time of hardship was a clear appreciation for the value of community. Phones were scarce, so gathering places in the town, such as the general store, became the central meeting ground for friends and neighbors. Lifelong friendships were created over bartering for whatever was needed.


There were few luxuries and certainly no technology that would resemble the things we enjoy today. There were no such things as a personal alarm button for safety and protection, a phone, or for many, even any method of transportation beyond their own two feet. You depended on your neighbors to check on you – and you would check on them. Everyone was paying attention to those nearby and offering what help they could.


Today, many of us are much more isolated. But the power of community still resonates, and we still feel that pull to take care of our neighbors and hope they will take care of us. It’s why our parents and grandparents were always so keen on being ready to help out at a moment’s notice. It’s a lesson that more of us could take to heart!


3.      Diversify Everything


While this is something that you often hear today in terms of finances, it can be helpful in all parts of life. During the Great Depression, it wasn’t unusual for men and women to expand their skills so they could do many things, from working in a variety of trades to handling everything around the house or farm without needing outside help.


Being able to adapt to any life circumstance became the most crucial skill of all. That’s something that all of us can carry and put into good use, no matter what generation we’re from.


4.      Don’t Be Afraid to Try New Things


During the Depression, everything became scarce, including food. Many families had to adapt quickly or face the very real possibility of malnutrition or even starvation. While there were breadlines and soup kitchens that took care of tens of thousands of people, many in rural areas who had a plot of land broke ground and began to grow their own food.


From learning to tend small backyard gardens to raising farm animals for much-needed milk and meat, many were trying out their homesteading skills for the first time. And sure enough, they usually managed to keep their families fed.


But that never would have happened if they hadn’t had the willingness to try something new and adapt to their circumstances. That same is true today. Though you might not be literally getting your hands dirty, the lessons of perseverance, determination, and grit resonate through the generations.


5.      Take Care of Yourself


Taking care of yourself mattered a great deal during that hard time. Why? For many families, the idea of needing to visit the doctor was a financial nightmare. They often paid for their medical needs through bartering, but sometimes that wasn’t possible. So women helped each other give birth, men assisted those who were disabled, and families came together in shifts to care for the weak, sick, and dying. Canes, wheelchairs, and more were fashioned from what was on hand.


Though today we have modern conveniences and medicines that can keep us healthy, alleviate pain, and fight disease, the principle of taking care of yourself still holds true. From taking your medications as directed to keeping all your doctor’s appointments to wearing a medical alert bracelet or wristband, taking proactive steps to protect your health is always a very good idea.


6.      Enjoy an Escape Now and Then


During the Great Depression, movies were a very popular way to escape from the problems of the real world. For only a few nickels, the whole family could enter the air-conditioned theater and watch the reels play out on the big screen. The glamorous movies of Hollywood brought a moment of escape to those who were dealing with the day-to-day reality of trying to put food on the table.


But it doesn’t have to happen in a movie theater. Getting out into the world, no matter how you do it, can give you a break from the routine and a chance to catch your breath. So take a walk in the neighborhood or along your favorite trail (while wearing a medical alert system with fall detection), go out for dinner with friends, or simply take the time to read a good book while relaxing at the beach or park. Rest can energize you to handle your responsibilities with less stress and worry.


The Great Depression was a very difficult time, but out of the worst times often comes the resilience of humanity. That is perhaps the best lesson to take away from the Depression: when faced with a true challenge, dig deep for strength and trust that you can overcome each difficulty.