This is nothing like the Great Depression

Lately we’ve often heard that the economic and social dislocation caused by COVID19 has been more disastrous than anything since the Great Depression. It’s sometimes implied that what we’re now experiencing is basically similar to that 1930s global trauma. Not so! In some ways our present plight may seem worse, but for the most part it’s much less serious.

True, the situation we face is shockingly different from the one faced by an earlier generation in that ours is a double whammy, not only disrupting the financial system (therefore jobs etc.) but also bringing sudden sickness and death to many around the world. The health of the international economy and the health of vast numbers of people are simultaneously threatened. For us, it’s almost as if the Great Depression had coincided with the 1918-20 Spanish Flu. In that respect, 2020 is an extraordinarily frightening time. (In contrast, the Depression period actually saw an improvement in average population health: despite widespread malnutrition and an increase in suicide, the death rate was lower than in the prosperous years before and afterwards. An irony worth pondering!)

Yet the serious physical impact of the coronavirus has been far less extensive than that of the Spanish Flu, which killed c. 50 million worldwide and c. 13,000 in Australia, whereas figures for COVID-19 show c. 130,000 deaths worldwide so far, and fewer than 70 in Australia.

Perth, 1931: unemployed men march in protest to the Premier’s office (public domain image). Chap. 10 of That Untravelled World is based on this incident.

So too, the socio-economic impact of the Great Depression went far beyond anything that confronts us now.

Alarming though it is to envisage unemployment in Australia rising (as we’re told it soon will) to 10%, this prospect is still relatively mild. Depression-era unemployment at its peak officially reached 32% — a figure mainly confined to ‘male breadwinners’: the real number desperate for work was higher! Many of the men remained out of work until the end of the decade, when they were able to enlist as soldiers.

To the ‘30s crisis neither Commonwealth nor State governments made any response comparable in speed or scope to what Australia has seen in recent weeks — the Jobseeker payments and other alleviating measures. Back then, support for the unemployed was limited to patchy relief schemes, generally known as the dole or sustenance (‘susso’), which were not available to all. Evictions were common, many families had to live rough on public land, and welfare safety-net provisions of the kind we take for granted did not exist.

Much of what we currently regard as hardship would have seemed the height of luxury to that earlier generation. Although people weren’t constrained by ‘social distancing’ or required to stay at home during the Great Depression, they had very few of the resources we can utilise to pass the time pleasantly. Most households in those days had no access to radio or telephone, let alone TV, internet, email, social media… Much less food was available. Health care was rudimentary.

Statistics and other factual information can hardly convey more than a superficial impression of what it felt like to struggle through the 1930s. The deepest insights come from novels and short stories that help us to imagine being among those whose lives were wrecked by economic and social devastation. A long time ago, in my book Fiction and the Great Depression in Australia and New Zealand, I wrote about the dozens of stories published in the 30s and soon afterwards that recorded and interpreted the traumatic experiences of this decade. There’s a substantial body of Australian work; and while it doesn’t all have lasting value, much of it still deserves attention, especially certain novels by Christina Stead, Kylie Tennant, Leonard Mann and Alan Marshall, and short fiction by Peter Cowan, Dal Stivens and John Morrison. The influence of the Depression on New Zealand literature was also profound.

In our own time, several writers of historical fiction have gone back to that period — and I’m one of them. My novel That Untravelled World is set in Western Australia in the years 1912-39, much of it focusing on the Depression years.

Part of my aim in this book was to suggest how the main character’s vicissitudes reflect a larger national story about the painful transformation that our country endured in that formative period. Young Harry is initially caught up in the exhilarating prospect that technological innovation, especially wireless, will conquer distance and bring progress and prosperity to the young nation. His attitude changes as Australia moves from heady optimism into the hard times of WW1 and the Depression, becoming a sadder and wiser community. In the words of one reviewer,

Harry drifts between places and jobs, never really finding his niche. His tale of early confidence followed by recurrent disappointment is evocative of the period in which it is set…. With its rapid technological change and economic ups and downs, it’s a period that resonates with our own.

11 thoughts on “This is nothing like the Great Depression

  1. Hi there Ian,

    Yes, you’ve mentioned some fine writers there. I came across Peter Cowan’s stories in high school (I think) and I’ve admired his work ever since. And yes, the progress (?) of Harry certainly mirrors the idea of the great modernist optimism and activity of the early 1900’s, particularly in artistic and technological terms, being progressively eroded and remodelled by the industrialised slaughter of WWI, then the flu pandemic and the Depression. I might be paraphrasing Robert Hughes in saying all that. And it might even be time to give Harry a second reading, in these bizarre circumstances.

    Hope you’re staying safe and sane over there in WA.

  2. Hi Glen. Yes, there’s much to admire in Cowan’s fiction. His story “Weekend” in the book Drift (1944) evokes Depression-period experience memorably. My character Harry in That Untravelled World draws partly on what I gleaned from the reminiscences of my parents and grandparents, who lived through that era.

  3. Thanks Ian. Good to have a historical perspective. I find myself thinking about my grandmother and her string saving habits quite a lot lately and wondering about the relative poverty of our eras. An elegant response to many of my questions.

  4. Saving bits of string, yes – and also (on the part of some of my older-generation family members) picking up bent nails to be straightened and collected in tins that once held tobacco…

  5. On reflection, Carol, those little habits of our grandparents’ generation were part of an attitude that’s no longer much valued, alas – though perhaps our present lockdown may lead to its revival. They would have called it thrift, and it involved making do, preserving, adapting, repurposing, handing on, recycling… a whole set of frugal practices that included keeping things aside in case they might be useful one day, darning socks and patching garments rather than discarding them. etc. etc.

  6. Dear Ian
    Your blog evoked fond memories of the thrifty habits of previous generations:
    Plastic containers such as yoghurt cups were reused (no “Tupperware”-style stuff)
    Old towels and tea towels were turned into cloths
    A worn sheet was cut down the middle and sown together so that the worn part was now along the sides
    All leftover bits of knitting wool were put aside, and eventually, my grandmother would crochet a blanket. (Not always to my mother´s taste in colour, I have to say)
    Shoes were polished to make the leather last, and soles were checked to see if a visit to the cobbler was imminent.
    Old socks were used to polish the shoes (woolen socks made them shine).
    The socks were darned to begin with!
    Rubber bands and corks were kept in a kitchen drawer
    The garbage bin was lined with the pages of a broadsheet newspaper
    On Christmas Eve the gift paper was snatched up and folded the moment a present was torn open, before the paper was crumpled and thrown aside by some over-eager child
    The same procedure on birthdays
    Bits of stale white bread were kept for breadcrumbs or bread and butter pudding
    Stale black bread was used to make øllebrød (a Danish specialty made of ryebread soaked in dark beer and water overnight, then boiled and passed through a sieve. Add grated lemon zest and serve hot sprinkled with sugar and a dollop of crème fraiche or a little cream)
    The butter paper was carefully scraped to save every last little lump
    Nothing edible was ever thrown out!
    Greetings from Denmark

  7. What a marvellously nostalgic retrieval of past practices, Dorte! Some of the things you mention have a distinctively Danish flavour, but most of them were just as common in Australia and New Zealand in years gone by. And your list prompts further memories too – a whole set of thrifty habits. Worth a long essay on the subject? I know the Great Depression hit Denmark very hard, so perhaps many frugalities were devised in response to the hardship of those years – but probably most of them were already embedded in the attitudes formed in earlier generations, when (as also in this part of the world) people usually struggled to make ends meet.

  8. Thanks Ian, I have respected your work on the great depression for many years. Your blog here is no exception. I agree substantially with your assessment. However, these are early days. Perhaps more like 1927 than 1929? Yet, for me, if historical parallels are to be drawn, the present moment strikes me as being scarily like the phony war 1939-40, before the full horror of the Blitzkrieg was unleashed and the world was plunged into the great abyss of the Second World War. In 2020, we know that Corona exists but few of us has any direct experience (like those in 1939 who knew that the world was at war but had very little appreciation of what was about to happen). I really hope I am wrong.

  9. A very sobering thought, Richard. As you remark, it’s really too early to be sure how the present situation will develop – how extremely serious it may yet become, how long it may last, and what the eventual consequences may be, medically or economically. Thanks for your contribution!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *