CHAPEL HILL - "Children of the Great Depression," a highly acclaimed book published in 1974 and now considered a classic, has been reissued by Westview Press of Boulder, Colo. The first work of its kind, the book traced the lives of 167 children born in Oakland, Calif., in 1920 and 1921 and followed them through young adulthood.
Dr. Glen Elder, Odum distinguished professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote the book and has added a new chapter to the 25th anniversary edition that compares those children's lives with a younger group born at the end of the 1920s. The new chapter also tells the story of how World War II and the Korean War affected that generation, pulling many survivors out of hard times and placing them on paths of opportunity.
The University of Chicago kept "Children of the Great Depression" in print for 20 years, and because of the demand, it has been translated into Japanese and Chinese. Elder said he was surprised that the work attracted so much attention when it first appeared and is pleased that interest has remained high so long.
"My central idea is that our lives are heavily influenced by major changes that take place in society such as the Depression and the war," Elder said. "Many of the children I followed grew up in poverty, but more than 80 percent of the boys went into the service, for example, and that expanded their world and increased opportunities so that many did quite well for themselves. Many of the girls met their husbands because of the war effort.
"I found that establishing a stable marriage relationship, finding a job that becomes a source of esteem and entering the military all tend to help people pull out of trouble they got into when they were younger," Elder said. "Such events often became turning points in life."
One feature that distinguishes the book from most earlier studies is that it cuts across disciplines such as history, psychology and sociology, he said. Even criminologists have found it relevant since it deals with forces that shape young people's lives for good and for ill.
Among points the book underscores are that history and timing play central roles in shaping the lives people live and that early experiences such as poverty do not necessarily determine what will become of children.
"In many ways, the Depression and World War II made these young people grow up faster, made them stronger, more adaptive and more resilient," he said. "It showed that sometimes hardship and even war are not purely negative influences and that planning and hard work usually pay off in some way."
Over the years, Elder said, he had received many letters about "Children of the Great Depression," not just from scholars but from lay readers as well. "Among the most rewarding letters are those that say, 'This book put my life in context and helped make sense of some things that I didn't understand before.'"
"'Children of the Great Depression' is an extraordinarily imaginative work, which demonstrates the power of the life course framework for understanding the interaction between individuals and families with the grand processes of social change," said Dr. Tamara K. Hareven, a University of Delaware faculty member.
"The new edition dramatically expands the study of lives to encompass the impact of two major world events, depression and war. It will continue to serve as a model and inspiration for research on the life course in the United States and internationally."
Cornell University's Urie Bronfenbrenner, a renowned developmental psychologist, also praised the UNC-CH professor's work on the Depression and war.
"In this volume, Glen Elder gives us two classics in one," Bronfenbrenner said. "He does so by bringing together in one place two closely related bodies of his work, widely separated in their original date of publication, but highly relevant today both for advancing developmental research and for addressing the critical problems that confront American society at this point in our history."
The American Sociological Association and the Society for Research in Child Development will honor Elder by devoting special discussion sessions to his book at their annual meetings next year.
By David Williamson
UNC-CH News Services
Note: Elder can be reached at (919) 966-6660.
Contact: David Williamson, 962-8596.