Make Your Own Job: Success and Failure in the Depression-Era United States
The New Deal had a far-reaching impact on every aspect of life in the United States, but it did not accomplish the fundamental transformation of American capitalism that seemed possible in the early years of the Great Depression. Historians have identified a variety of explanations for the limitations of Depression-era political form, from the rise of an organized business-conservative movement and the onset of World War II to the continuing dependence of the Democratic Party on Southern segregationists. Without denying the significance of any of these factors, this talk highlights the importance of the nascent self-help publishing industry in stigmatizing jobs created by the government as opposed to those created by individuals in the private sector. Early-twentieth-century self-help encouraged the development of a new economic culture in which the key criterion of success was not one’s employment status, income, or possessions, but whether one had managed to take the advice to “make your own job,” as the title of one Depression-era book phrased it. The pervasive conviction that government-created jobs lacked the dignity and social utility of jobs created by “entrepreneurs” encouraged New Deal policymakers, by the late 1930s, to focus on promoting private-sector job creation –– instead of shifting the balance of employment towards the public sector or, as some contemporary radicals urged, decoupling income from work altogether.
Erik Baker teaches on the history of the social sciences and American capitalism at Harvard University. His scholarship has appeared in Modern Intellectual History, History of the Human Sciences, and Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, among other venues. He is also an associate editor of The Drift and a widely published magazine essayist. His first book, Make Your Own Job: The Entrepreneurial Work Ethic in Modern America, is under contract with Harvard University Press.
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