Career Advice from the Great Depression

Everyone, and especially young people who, as numerous surveys report, is more anxious in this economy about being able to find a job or having upwards mobility once they’re employed.

Things are better in the federal workforce, but not ideal. The 2017 FEVS data shows that only 60% of Feds feel their talents are well-used and only 37% 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 worse during the Great Depression. So can we learn anything from the career advice given out during that time which would apply 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 lasting for years. Americans had been raised to believe that, if they worked hard, they’d be secure, and losing that certainty was incredibly hard for them. 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, but there are many things they have in common with their grandparents and great-grandparents.[1]
  • 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.  This caused depression and led to them withdrawing from their families and lives.[2]  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, but when times get tough, there’s less to lose from failing too.  Think about radically different paths or ideas to get out of your dead-end job or career situation.  Talk to new people, try a new field, or think about moving.  Remember that hundreds of thousands of people during the Great Depression were willing to hop onto trains and hitchhike around the country looking for work.[3]  It’s pretty likely that nothing new you could do would be as risky as that.

No matter what problems we face, we can always learn from those who have gone before.  Good luck!



[1] Mary C. McComb, Great Depression and the Middle Class: Experts, Collegiate Youth, and Business Ideology, 1929 – 1941, Routledge (2006).

[2] Gregory Wood, Retiring Men: Manhood, Labor, and Growing Old in America, 1900-1960, University Press (2012).

[3] Hamilton Cravens & Peter Mancall, Great Depression: People and Perspectives, ABC-CLIO (2009).


Joseph Maltby serves on the National Leadership Team for Young Government Leaders, an association of young leaders across the federal government seeking to educate, inspire, and transform, as well as serve as a coordinated voice, for current and future leaders in government.  Joseph works as an internal consultant for a federal agency and, in his spare time, creates short educational videos on topics in government, law, and politics.






Posted in Young Gov



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