3 Recession-Friendly Lessons Worth Learning

Listening to last week’s jobs report, I had the same feeling that I get when I hear someone is very ill, or worse, someone died. There seems to be nothing appropriate to say. There seems to be little in the form of words that could help tactically, or even provide a bit of comfort.

That’s because, as U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis aptly put it, this is a “stubborn” recession. The unemployment number stayed below 10 percent, but only because 929,000 individuals are so discouraged they’ve stopped looking for work. It’s now taking seven months on average to find a job.

So today, I have no advice on redoing your résumé, no push to spend more time networking live or on Facebook. Instead, I spent a little time talking with Erin Bried, author of the new book How to Sew a Button: And Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew. In researching her new volume, she conducted a deep dive into the knowledge of ten Grandmas, Nanas and Bubbies who lived through the Great Depression. She emerged with a slew of practical advice on how to shine your own shoes, grow (and can) your own vegetables and barter. But, she says, “more important than any singular tip is the overall philosophy. You’re going to get knocked down, and you have to get back up.”

Distilled, the wisdom of the ages is really about learning three crucial life skills. They are:

Resourcefulness: Jean Dinsmore was born in 1918 in Idaho. As a little girl, she recalled hearing her parents emphasize little more than getting an education – “I don’t care when you get married but you have to go to college,” she told Bried. But by age 12, she aged out of the one-room schoolhouse in her small town. So she and her sister moved to a town 15 miles away where they lived in an apartment of sorts for kids just like them who were going to school. Dinsmore did finish high school, then college, before getting married in her early 20s. “To me, figuring out how to solve a problem [like how are you going to finish school] means more than another list of how you save on your energy costs,” says Bried.

Resilience: Nikki Chrisanthon was born in 1925 in Allentown, PA, where her father had a candy and ice cream store. Both were luxuries in those days, so when the Depression hit the store fell on hard times. Her mother got a job in a local dress factory to help out, but they still didn’t have enough money for basics – like sheets for their beds. So they figured out how to make their own. They took the 100-pound sacks from the sugar shipped to her father’s store, washed them and bleached them in the sun. They geared old nylons and made rugs from them. “I heard so many stories like this I couldn’t fit them all in the book,” Bried acknowledges. “Many of the women talked about how you had to grow your own food. If you didn’t, you were hungry all summer. And if you didn’t can it, you had nothing in the winter.”

Priorities: During the Depression, the Grandmas told Bried, the feeling was much like it is today. Everyone knew someone who had lost a job. If you were fortunate enough to still have yours, you were worried about it. The lesson: “What’s important in life isn’t your bank balance but friendship and your family.” Beatrice Neidorf, born in 1915 in Philadelphia, remembered telling her husband money can’t buy the important things: truth, sincerity and loyalty. They were married for 52 years.

I wasn’t lucky enough to know any of my grandmothers – one died before I was born (I’m named for her), the other when I was two. But I learned from my grandfather Sam (an opera singer who worked as a tailor and helped put his brother-in-law through law school on his small salary) that families do whatever they have to do to support each other financially through tough times, and from my grandfather Abe (a projectionist lucky enough to have a union job) that being frugal is a good thing.

What grandmotherly wisdom is helping you get through today?

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