I’ve been thinking about the Great Depression lately. Not because I think we’re heading toward another one, but because it is one of those historical events that left an obvious, lasting mark on the people who experienced it.
If you knew somebody who lived through the Great Depression as an adult — and not as a kid who probably wasn’t fully aware of what was going on — you know what I mean. The adults who lived through the Depression clearly had a world view that was forever, unalterably affected by that difficult time. After the Depression ended, they generally lived frugally and saved money. They wanted to avoid debt at all costs. They tended not to trust newfangled ideas and were as cautious and conservative in their investments as you could possibly be. And they generally did not have the sunny faith that things were necessarily going to get better. There was a hard edge, a Depression-inflicted scar, that was lurking just beneath the surface that tended to influence and affect, in some way or another, just about everything they did. My grandfather, for example, always wanted to have plenty of cash on hand — just in case everything went to hell tomorrow and he needed it.
Later generations of Americans didn’t share that same worldview. They lived when times were flush, and they expected that the high times they had always known would inevitably continue. Sure, there were some bumps in the road, but for the most part we lived lives and developed plans and made decisions about buying cars and houses, determining whether we could afford a particular college for our kids, and planning for retirement on the assumption that life as we always knew it would be pretty much the same in a month, or a year, or five years. There was a kind of presumed certainty about the future that served as the unconscious basis for all of those kinds of decisions.
Now we’ve had the fates throw an enormous wrench into the works. We’ve learned in a brutal, stunning, totally unexpected way that we can’t presume to know for sure what will happen in the future. How is that going to affect people’s decisions going forward?
I wonder if this coronavirus experience, too, is going to also have a lifelong effect in terms of where people choose to live and how they choose to live. At minimum, when we are trying to make a decision about a course of action, will we always be thinking: “what if another global pandemic occurs?”