My grandmother was born in 1932, right in the middle of the Great Depression.
Her father died when she was four or five years old, leaving a young and vulnerable family with no resources. My grandmother, along with her siblings were sent to live with relatives and neighbors. The only memories my grandmother has shared regarding this particularly challenging time in her early life are a few anecdotes regarding working on the host farms in which she lived.
As our country surged through World War II and the economy began to recover, my grandmother’s life improved considerably. She became a beautician, opened her own beauty salon, traveled to NYC and Hawaii, and eventually, married a veterinarian. All the material comforts and basics securities she missed out on as a Depression era baby, she realized through the remaining 70 years of her adult life.
While the Depression is decades behind my grandmother, it’s reaching effects would occasionally crop up as she went about life in modern day suburbia. Some were subtle, like how when eating out she’d make sure she transferred every remaining crumb from her plate into the doggie box. Others were more overt, like how she’d drive the exact same base model car for forty years, until it was literally cheaper to buy a new one than replace her relic’s many malfunctioning parts.
As a child, I hated traveling with her, as her frugality could become almost suffocating. “We don’t really need lunch, as we’re just riding in a car and not spending any energy,” and “Let’s not waste any money on attractions you won’t remember weeks later,” were just a few of her favorite reminders that made little sense to a consumption-driven child of the 90’s.
The Great Depression Mindset
Always on the lookout for “good stuff people were throwing away”, my grandmother would drive her lakeside neighborhood looking for these trash treasures.
Once, she mistook someone’s new yard furniture for trash and was attempting to put the wicker into the deep trunk of her Impala when the resident ran out yelling, “What are you doing?!” Buckled into my booster seat, I remember being so embarrassed as I watched my grandmother’s neighborhood treasure hunt unfold.
She was just trying to stock up in case the markets crashed again and we all ended up homeless. Passing up on an opportunity to collect “good stuff” (aka the neighbor’s lawn furniture) made no sense to her Depression-era mind.
“You just never know when you’ll wake up one day and it’ll all be gone,” she’d tell me.
Another Economic Crash
The markets crashed.
I went to college.
I became an adult.
I experienced life as an unemployed adult and as the Great Recession lagged on, its tentacle reach of financial destruction strangling most things I held dear.
I (finally) began to understand my grandma. I’d go two years without buying any new clothes (not even socks), I slept in my truck vs. paying rent for several weeks, I lived without access to healthcare for months, and I went over a year without eating out (not even the drive thru). Why? Dismal job market, student loans, and skyrocketing housing prices – aka every Millennial’s remembrance of the 2000’s (save the tragedies of September 11th).
And while I have been able to secure professional opportunities for myself, through academia and entrepreneurship, the memories of being a new college grad and receiving over 400 rejection letters still influences the way I continue to perceive our world.
Way back in 2010, a year of historic low employment for new grads, I spent the majority of my days walking around town and scanning listings looking for almost any type of work. In poverty-stricken Mississippi, there was very little work available for experienced tradesman and professionals, much less a fresh-off-the-farm, indebted college grad peddling yet another devalued bachelor’s degree.
I’d often work two to three minimum wage jobs, in addition to being on the job hunt and interviewing for more mobile positions. It was incredibly discouraging.
The Recession’s Long-term Effects
During the years that followed, I’d religiously carry a small notebook around with me, either in my purse or in my pocket, so as to write down any job details I’d come across.
Help Wanted signs were a rare sighting in 2010, so I’d learned to take a Carpe Diem approach to job hunting – always be ready. Thankfully, the economy began to recover, my career (eventually) took off, and I no longer have to scrape by on minimum wage; but, similar to how my grandmother’s Depression-driven behavior remained evident into her better years, I still carry a pocket sized notebook around with me everywhere I go, often pulling over my car to scribble down the contact information for any jobs I see advertised.
Why? Why would a business owner and college professor be pulling over the car to jot down the contact information for a fireworks tent’s Help Wanted sign or a festival’s labor temp notice?
Because, like my grandmother used to tell me, “You just never know…”