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Our Jobless Youth: a Warning (1939)

Our Jobless Youth: a Warning

By John Chamberlain, An Article in Survey Graphic, October, 1939

Editor’s Note: John Rensselaer Chamberlain (1903 – 1995), was a syndicated columnist, book critic and author whose journalism career spanned more than six decades.  Chamberlain had been associated with a number of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Barron’s and Life magazine. He produced eight books, including a collection of his writings, “The Turnabout Years,” published in 1992.

I HAVE A FRIEND, LET US SAY HIS NAME IS JOE CAIRNS, WHO used to work in an office down the corridor from me. Two years ago Joe was an office boy, a bright one who had hopes of writing. He had been, at an incredibly youthful age, both an organizer for the CIO in eastern Pennsylvania and a communist, and as an office boy he took a deeply earnest interest in the local chapter of the American Newspaper Guild. Joe regarded me as a berighted liberal, a person with—maybe—a good heart but with just a little too much income to stay put on the radical side of the fence. I used to have fun arguing with Joe. You could actually get him on the subject of his political affiliation, for he was quite willing to admit that communists in Russia had scant regard for civil liberties, for political democracy, or for the legal traditions of those countries which Professor George Catlin has lumped together under the larger heading of “Anglo-Saxony.” But Joe always returned stubbornly to the same point. “A young fellow’s got to believe that his life is coming to something,” he used to say. “This economic system is never going to spread out enough to take us all in. You liberals, the New Deal and all that, can give us something. But only enough to make us ask for more. If we succeed in getting a living wage by reformist political measures, why should we be content to stop there?”

Thus argued Joe Cairns for a few months after he had ceased to be an office boy. He was despairful at the time of ever making the grade as a magazine writer, although his education had been sufficient to arouse his sustained curiosity about a great number of things. But slowly the despair ebbed. Joe’s new-found confidence did not alter his beliefs, but you could sense change of emphasis in his daily living. “You know,” he said one day, “I’ve never known a big personality on the communist Left. They’re all too wrapped up in the class war; they haven’t time to become broad human beings.” Joe had left the Communist Party; its demands on time and energy were getting in the way of both education and vocation. But he still retained all his old interest in the Newspaper Guild.

The story of Joe Cairns is not offered as typical of modern out-of-school youth; indeed, Joe is about as a-typical as he could be. To begin with, he is an intellectual and a New Yorker, which puts him in a very small minority at once. Second, he has been a communist. But Joe’s story is instructive, for it dramatizes the difficulty of pinning youth down. Had a sample test interviewer caught Joe in a truthful mood two years ago he would have put him down as a radical anti-democrat who subscribed to all the rigmarole about “boring from within.” Had he caught Joe last spring he would have discovered a person whose beliefs were in a state of flux. And two years from now—just where will Joe be then? It all depends on how things break for Joe in his chosen vocation.

Since Joe became a communist at a tender age, we can assume that he was badly educated in the values of democracy. But his story illustrates the weaknesses of the theory that correct education is what is necessary to bind youth firmly to the democratic scheme of things. If Joe gets the breaks, if the economic system expands in the future to give him pride of place, his youthful communism will probably be forgotten in spite of his education. On the other hand, if the economic system continues to contract, Joe will probably go back to his communism—or to some more inchoate form of anti-democratic radicalism. But the point to be made here is that other young people who have had democratic values drilled into them from birth will be with Joe, too. Education is a weak bulwark for democracy if democracy can’t deliver the goods in the form of jobs, a future, or just plain hope.

The other evening I heard Phil La Follette, former governor of Wisconsin, say that a definite fault-line of character divides youth from age in the United States. Phil implied that our out-of-school youth is unstable, apathetic (but maybe preparing to move in a hurry), and unable to derive much comfort from slow parliamentary attempts at meliorism. Sidney Hillman made light of Phil’s fears that a psychic “explosion,” a crise des nerfs, is necessarily coming to America sometime in the Forties but Sidney Hillman was obviously thinking in terms of mature clothing workers, all of whom have certain skills—or at least a pattern of remembered daily activity upon which to build a political program. Phil’s rebuttal was this: given five more years of a contracting or even a static capitalism, then young people who have no pattern of remembered activity will simply stampede. They won’t go radical in a way to please socialists or neo-socialists; for they will lack the trade union discipline that is needed for old-line socialist or reformist political activity. Phil La Follette is obviously right when he says that a trapped generation will “explode.” And the explosion will come, as it came in Italy and Germany, regardless of education. (Note to readers: for ‘explosion” read fascism if you like.)

But suppose our economic system rocks along, with production picking up. In that case, out-of-school youth does offer a real current challenge to educators. There must be educational opportunities to take up the slack of a temporary period of unemployment; there must be education in vocational skills. Above all, there must be education to sharpen youth’s faculty to see a job where no job has ever existed before. Such education does not necessarily mean putting youth back into high school or college. But it does involve the creation or expansion of night schools, vocational schools, and alert vocational guidance. And dead end jobs must be accompanied with training on the side for other jobs.

What Youth Is Doing

NO CENSUS HAS BEEN TAKEN SINCE 1930. BUT IT IS A REASONABLE guess that there are 20,500,000 young people in the United States between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four. Of these, some ten million are in school. Of the ten million plus that have quit school, mostly for economic reasons, some seven million have either full time or part time jobs (with a majority working full time), and some three million are just hanging around. The unemployment among out-of-school youth may be figured thus to be around 40 percent (including the time spent on the sidelines by those with only partial employment). All of which means, of course, that out-of-school youth has the highest unemployment of any age level in the country.

To know whether the schools have done their part in preparing young people to make the best of a period that offers only partial employment to some and mere hopes for employment to a good many more, we must somehow get inside the collective mind of a whole generation. But a word of caution is in order before we go exploring. Since youth is evanescent, since its problems become merged with the adult problems of a whole economy, a whole civilization, in pretty short order, the achievement of getting inside the collective mind of a generation may not be worth very much three years hence. Back in 1933, for example, we had a boy and girl tramp problem, with thousands of kids in their late ‘teens and early twenties taking to the road and the hobo jungle. Had a sample test been taken at the time, we might have predicted the worst for our young people: with one in twenty growing up entirely outside the social system (as some of the more inflamed guesses had it), the dice certainly seemed loaded against our traditional democracy of opportunity. One would have been quite justified on the basis of a 1933 sample test in shaking one’s head over the failure of a social system that could not keep young people in school, or even off the brake beams of the through freights.

Yet the period of the “wild children” lasted only for a brief moment. Things are better now than they were in 1933, even for young people. As we shall see, the CCC and the National Youth Administration have thrown life-lines to the most desperate cases. And what with FERA and WPA and AAA and Social Security, homes have ceased to break up. “We have bought ourselves time to think,” said Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt. That goes for youth, too.

A Sample of American Youth

WHAT, THEN, IS YOUTH THINKING? WHEN I SEE AN eighteen-year-old listening hour after hour as the radio “entertainment” drools on, or when I watch Bobby Riggs playing one of his typically lackadaisical tennis matches, I doubt that youth is thinking at all. But this is obviously the prejudice of an old gaffer in his thirties; after all, Bobby Riggs does manage to win important tournaments against smart players. Back in 1936 and 1937 the American Youth Commission of the American Council on Education interviewed some 13,500 young people between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four in the state of Maryland. What emerges from the report of the commission, “Youth Tell Their Story,” is a picture of a generation whose group personality is somewhat recessive and apathetic. But, underneath the protective coloration of diffidence, the youth of the Maryland sample have ideas that are just as well defined as Riggs’ tennis game.* Two out of three are convinced that wages are generally too low, which would seem to indicate that the underconsumption theory of a faltering capitalism (the theory that has been most assiduously popularized by the New Deal) has sunk in. The youth that is least inclined to regard general wages as too low are the farm boys, but these, nevertheless, are the most inclined to consider their own wages too low. Again, this would seem to argue a high degree of receptivity to the principle of parity of purchasing power for agriculture. Twenty years ago individual youths might have grumbled about their own particular rewards, but would they have complained about wage scales as a whole? One wonders.

But how are wages to be raised from the farm boy’s median weekly average of 58.44 and the city boy s average of $13.82? Again, youth’s answer here is more or less the answer of the New Deal: 40 percent believe in government regulation of wages (and a surprising number of young people approved of the NRA), while 22 percent think labor unions could turn the trick. Only 10 percent believe in “individual effort,” and a mere 4 percent is for a “new economic system.” So much for the extremes of rugged individualism and communism.

It would be easy to argue from these figures that a fair majority of young people are for the democratic “social service” state. Well, they are—and they aren’t. They share the fundamental American distrust of “isms,” but they believe government should, in Leon Henderson’s words, “do what it takes.” On the other hand, they tend to be cynical about the suffrage. Fifty-five percent consider that candidates are elected to office for reasons of “political pull,” or “money, graft and bribery.” Seventeen percent answered: “Political machine.” Only 5 percent believe that “personality” can elect a candidate to public office.

Is it paradoxical that this youth that is cynical about democratic processes can also believe in government regulation of wages and hours, central administration of relief (90 percent regard relief as a valid concern of Washington), and government regulation of child labor? Perhaps it is. Or perhaps it merely proves that American youth is pragmatic, willing to let the “crooked” politicians vote (under penalty of removal from office) for legislation that will benefit the masses. After all, one can regard one’s ward boss as a double-dyed rascal, and one’s Senator as a fathead and still prefer them to the self-chosen “elite” of a dictatorship.

“Give Us Security”

ON THE BASIS OF THE MARYLAND SAMPLE TEST, YOUTH ITSELF considers economics to be the essence of the “youth problem.” Two thirds of the sample voted “economic security” as “youth’s own problem,” and almost 60 percent think “economic security” is synonymous with the “youth problem in general.” “Education, vocational choice” trails far behind as a chosen category; only 13 percent voted for this as “youth’s own problem.” In other words: “Give us jobs, and we’ll let the education follow in due course.”

How representative is the Maryland sample? The state itself offers a pretty good cross-section of American conditions as a whole: its westernmost tip is hill country; its northern and central counties consist largely of slightly rolling farm lands, like those of southeastern Pennsylvania or south central Ohio; its Calvert County, where tobacco is raised, has a distinct southern flavor and many Negroes; its “eastern shore” gets its living from salt water and from truck farming; its city of Baltimore is both a manufacturing center and a port; and its Prince George County is a suburb of the national capital at Washington. In all these regions people are divided pretty much as elsewhere into poor and well-to-do, unprivileged and privileged, educationally retarded and college bred. Possibly the “old American” character of most Maryland regions gives a “100 percent American” touch to the Maryland survey that would not be found, say, in an equivalent sample for New York State or Massachusetts. Generally speaking, however, the Maryland sample percentages conform to national percentages; and we can take the word of accredited statisticians that, as sample tests go, the Maryland survey is entirely trustworthy.

THE MARYLAND SAMPLE DOES NOT PROVE THAT OUR DEMOCRACY of opportunity” is functioning for youth; children from the poorest families tend to get the worst jobs and, moreover, they tend to stay in the worst jobs. Class tends to perpetuate class, an American reality that clashes with traditional American theory. And the least privileged groups tend to produce the most children, meaning that there are more and more of a given helpless class to be gripped by the economic vise. To break this vicious circle of economic determinism, the American Youth Commission advocates more efficient educational, vocational and recreational programs for all youth.” Certainly youth itself, on the basis of the Maryland sample, is not overly enthusiastic about existing educational, vocational and recreational opportunities. Young people who manage to stay in school until they are eighteen do discover that education helps in job-getting. But the employment and the income of a young person’s father profoundly affect the amount of schooling that a given youth is likely to receive. Here, again, we find the vicious circle of economic determinism working. The selective principle behind the recruiting of high school and college students is distinctly not intellectual; it is almost entirely economic. As for vocational guidance in school, it proves helpful insofar as there is any; 70 percent of the young people who have received this guidance are grateful for it. But in most schools there is no attempt at vocational guidance; according to the Maryland report, “when all the youth including those now in school are considered, one still finds that only sixteen out of every hundred have received what they consider helpful vocational guidance from their schools.” Looking beyond the Maryland sample, we discover from the studies of Carter Goodrich and other sources that vocational opportunities appear most plentifully where they are least needed, and vice versa. The Great Plains region, the coal plateaus of the southern Appalachians, the old Cotton Belt, all have an excess of births over deaths—and the fewest jobs, the poorest schooling, and the least adequate vocational guidance in the country. The richest agricultural regions tend to have the best agricultural schools; in marginal farming regions, where it takes a skilful man to get a living from the soil, the young and aspiring farmer finds the most difficulty in acquiring skills. And when the surplus population of the Ozark-Appalachian plateaus, the old Cotton Belt and the Great Plains region is drained into the cities, where there is an excess of deaths over births, it finds itself at a disadvantage in competing with urban youth that knows the way around.

Ugly Alternatives

IN CERTAIN EUROPEAN COUNTRIES YOUTH HAS SOLD ITSELF into state slave-service for a pittance. As Hans Kohn says, the “great personal and creative appeal of autonomous freedom and human comradeship which distinguished . . . the pre-war period” is lost. In Russia, five million young people in the Komsomols are under the strict military discipline of the Communist Party. But youth must eat, and if democracy can’t provide jobs, then democratic youth may be expected to go the way of German, Italian and Russian youth.

Democracy’s stop-gap answer to the challenge of unemployed out-of-school youth has been the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration. Ever since 1933, the CCC has been taking young men from families on the public relief rolls and placing them—an over-all number of at least 350,000 at any given time since 1935—in forestry, park, and soil erosion camps. The CCC is voluntary, but a candidate must enroll for a minimum service of six months. According to Howard Oxley, 50,000 illiterate boys learned to read and write in CCC camps between 1933 and 1937. Some 300,000 more continued elementary schooling, 200,000 studied high school subjects, and 50,000 took college subjects. Vocationally, the CCC is limited; but it has turned out young men with a useful knowledge of soil conservation, road building, forestry, automobile mechanics, carpentry, furniture-making, and cooking. Not a few youthful truck drivers in private industry owe their jobs to CCC apprenticeship. The National Youth Administration, set up in June of 1935, has not had the funds to take care of more than a mere fraction of the young people who are unemployed or unable to afford vocational school or college. But, for a few hundred thousand boys and girls, it has helped to provide work on locally sponsored projects, and its pay checks have enabled a number of young people to continue their education on at least a part time basis. Residence projects, which are really cooperative schools, have resulted in a few young people learning how to become farmers, seamstresses and stenographers.

But with three million and more out-of-school youth waiting around for something to turn up, the opportunities for temporary employment and limited vocational training offered by CCC and NYA are obviously not enough. Our mass production economic system demands higher skills from fewer people, whereas our school system has been giving better cultural training in recent years to more people. This results in a scissors, the two blades of which open to create an ever larger area of discontent in between. When more and more of the discontented find themselves with time on their hands and no way to pay for the enjoyments of the good life which school has led them to demand, we are likely to discover ourselves with an ugly and morose younger population—a population with latent potentialities for political evil. Nothing much is being done to prevent the growth of such a phenomenon; and our do-nothingism in this respect is the measure of our democratic failure.


* For the sake of brevity I will use the present tense in discussing the Maryland sample. (See “Youth Goes Round and Round;” by Martha Bensley Bruere in Survey Graphic, April 1938.)]

How to Cite this Article (APA Format):  Chamberlain, J. (1939, October). Our jobless youth: A warning. Survey Graphic, 28(10), 579. Retrieved [date accessed] from /eras/jobless-youth-warning/.

Source:New Deal Network, (March 24, 2014).