Our Jobless Youth: A Warning Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This article was written for Survey Graphic magazine, a publication that largely catered to those in the social service and welfare field. The magazine was published concurrently with Survey Midmonthly by Survey Associates, a nonprofit organization concerned with the proper application of philanthropy to address social problems. In this article, author John Chamberlain voiced concern that American youth would turn to fascism, which was sweeping through Europe at the time, if they were unable to find meaningful jobs at a reasonable wage. Chamberlain offered sociological information from a survey of Maryland youths and from his own experience to argue that young people were cynical about the political process and believed that a strong central state should be regulating working conditions and pay. In addition, he identified heightened expectations created by education and then not borne out by experience as a dangerous factor in the anticipated “explosion” of fascism among the several million young Americans who were out of school, unemployed or underemployed, and “trapped.”

Summary Overview

This article was written for Survey Graphic magazine, a publication that largely catered to those in the social service and welfare field. The magazine was published concurrently with Survey Midmonthly by Survey Associates, a nonprofit organization concerned with the proper application of philanthropy to address social problems. In this article, author John Chamberlain voiced concern that American youth would turn to fascism, which was sweeping through Europe at the time, if they were unable to find meaningful jobs at a reasonable wage. Chamberlain offered sociological information from a survey of Maryland youths and from his own experience to argue that young people were cynical about the political process and believed that a strong central state should be regulating working conditions and pay. In addition, he identified heightened expectations created by education and then not borne out by experience as a dangerous factor in the anticipated “explosion” of fascism among the several million young Americans who were out of school, unemployed or underemployed, and “trapped.”

Defining Moment

Young people bore a disproportionate share of the suffering and deprivation of the Great Depression. A 1933 census revealed that children under sixteen years of age accounted for 42 percent of Americans receiving relief benefits, despite making up only 31 percent of the population. Many children had to leave school early in order to try to earn money for their families, and the economic crisis quickly became an educational crisis as well. In 1934, insufficient tax revenues resulted in the closure nearly 20,000 schools in rural areas, and school terms were drastically shortened. At the nadir of the Great Depression, thousands of young men and women left home and hitched rides on freight trains, crossing the country in search of work. Politicians and social workers began referring to a “youth crisis” as traditional family relationships crumbled under the strain of chronic poverty and unemployment.

In an attempt to address this crisis, student groups and proponents of New Deal liberalism formed organizations to advocate for educational and employment opportunities and to push for federal aid to schools. The American Youth Congress and the American Student Union led the first national youth marches on Washington. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration supported school construction and managed to keep thousands of schools open by paying teachers from New Deal emergency funds, while the Works Progress Administration (WPA) opened nearly three thousand free nursery schools and provided free lunches for impoverished students. The National Youth Administration provided more than two million students with work-study jobs that allowed them to continue their education.

Still, by the end of the decade, between three and four million Americans under the age of twenty-four had left school and were out of work. Like the author of this article, many social scientists were concerned that decreasing opportunities for success and the European example of a strong centralized state could lead to the rise of fascism among young people in the United States. If youths no longer believed that they could control their own destiny, they argued, what was to stop them from handing over total control to a dictator?

By the time this article appeared in the October 1939 issue of Survey Graphic, the year had already seen an astonishing amount of political and international upheaval. In March, fascist dictator Francisco Franco took control of Spain. Benito Mussolini was firmly ensconced in a fascist dictatorship in Italy, having been in power since 1922. On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany two days later. In the United States, despite the concerns of many youth leaders during the Great Depression, fascist organizations emerged sporadically but never gained a large following.

Author Biography

John Rensselaer Chamberlain was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on October 28, 1903. He graduated in 1925 from Yale University, where he had been on the editorial board of the Yale Record, the campus humor magazine. Following a brief stint as a copywriter for an advertising agency, Chamberlain began his journalism career at the New York Times, where he became assistant editor of the New York Times Book Review in 1928 and wrote a daily review column from 1933 to 1936. In 1926, the same year he started working at the Times, he married Margaret Sterling, with whom he had two children. Following Margaret's death in 1955, he married Ernestine Stodelle, and the two had one child, Chamberlain's third.

Chamberlain worked for numerous other newspapers and magazines during his long career, including Life magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Scribner's, Barron's, Fortune, and Harper's. He taught at various universities, including the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and was dean of the journalism school at Alabama's Troy State University from 1972 to 1977. He published eight books, the last of which was The Turnabout Years (1991), a collection of articles and essays.

Chamberlain was an influential political theorist, leaning more toward libertarianism than his 1930s-era liberalism as he grew older. He died on April 9, 1995, in New Haven, Connecticut.

Document Analysis

John Chamberlain begins his article with an anecdote. He introduces the reader to Joe Cairns, a pseudonymous office boy whose case illustrates both the changeable nature of young people and the effect of economic opportunities on political views. When Chamberlain first meets Cairns, he is an avowed Communist who believes that “this economic system is never going to spread out enough to take us all in.” After a promotion from office boy to magazine writer, Cairns leaves Communism behind, as his new profession requires his time and attention and, presumably, has given him a new direction. He is on the cusp of success, but Chamberlain argues that his ultimate beliefs will depend on his opportunities: “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.… 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.” Cairns's case proves to Chamberlain that education–which Cairns, whom he describes as “an intellectual,” received to an extent “sufficient to arouse his sustained curiosity”–can only go so far; he argues, “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 length and breadth of the Great Depression is another area of concern for Chamberlain. Young people, he says, have no memory of a good economy with plentiful opportunities. They have limited opportunities for job training and no experience to fall back on when work becomes available once again. They are, Chamberlain claims, “a trapped generation [that] 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.)” This is the key issue for Chamberlain, who argues that fascism is very appealing to a generation that has never seen capitalism working well and has seen the pitfalls of socialism and communism as well. He believes that vocational training is necessary to prepare young people to work when jobs become available, saying that their success depends on 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.”

Writing as he is for a social-science magazine, Chamberlain provides his readers with some statistics. If there are around ten million young people (defined as between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four) in the United States who are not currently in school, seven million of whom are employed either full or part time, that leaves “some three million [who] are just hanging around.” Taking into account “the time spent on the sidelines by those with only partial employment,” this makes the unemployment rate among out-of-school young people approximately 40 percent.

Additional statistical information is gleaned from a 1936–37 survey of 13,500 Maryland residents between sixteen and twenty-four. Chamberlain describes the result of the survey as “a picture of a generation whose group personality is somewhat recessive and apathetic.” The majority of young people surveyed are “cynical about democratic processes” but still believe that the government should regulate labor and wages and provide financial relief. Limited opportunities to escape poverty and advance–Chamberlain argues that “children from the poorest families tend to get the worst jobs and… stay in the worst jobs” and that “class tends to perpetuate class”–mean that young people are “a population with latent potentialities for political evil.” “Nothing much is being done to prevent the growth of such a phenomenon,” he concludes, and “our do-nothingism in this respect is the measure of our democratic failure.”

Essential Themes

In this article, Chamberlain urges his readers to consider the impact of limited vocational opportunities on young people in the United States. Since young people have never seen capitalism working and have also seen the failures of some communist and socialist ideas, fascism will appeal to them if nothing is done to address the issue. Chamberlain highlights the connection between youthful ideas, which are changeable and malleable, and economic and educational opportunities, which can set young people on a positive path.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Cohen, Robert. When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America's First Mass Student Movement, 1929–1941. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.
  • Modell, John. Into One's Own: From Youth to Adulthood in the United States, 1920–1975. Berkeley: U of California P, 1989. Print.
  • Reiman, Richard A. The New Deal and American Youth: Ideas and Ideals in a Depression Decade. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1992. Print.
  • Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: Harper, 2007. Print.
Categories: History Content