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Photo by Joan Marcus.

The War at Home: Shifting Values on the Homefront

While the war abroad had ended, the generational conflict at home pressed on.

The War at Home: Shifting Values on the Homefront

World War II changed not just the political and military landscape of the world, but also family and community structures at home in the United States. The America that Joe and Kate Keller grew up in fostered different values than that of their sons. These differences left post-war communities divided and families searching for common ground.

The Progressive Era Family

Joe and Kate Keller were young adults in what was considered the “Progressive Era.”  At the time, most communities and families were culturally homogeneous: people rarely married outside their race, religion, or even their neighborhood. Additionally, as child labor laws were not put in place nationally until 1938, formal education was an option, but not a priority, for many families. Teenagers and children were expected to do their part to help support the family, and that often meant that children left school as soon as they were physically and intellectually ready to enter the workforce.

In the first decade of the 1900s, when Joe and Kate Keller would have turned 18:

  • Only 51% of United States citizens 19 and younger were enrolled in school of any sort
  • Americans over 25 had, on average, only completed formal schooling through 8th grade
  • 17.7% of all 10- to 13-year-old males were already involved in the workforce

The Depression Era Family

Chris Keller turned 18 during the Great Depression. In this era, high rates of unemployment, along with the government’s push for labor reform, kept children and teenagers out of the workforce.  As a result, many stayed in school longer or worked in their own homes as the economic crisis left families struggling to make ends meet. Marriages were delayed, and couples had fewer children because families could not financially support children.

By the time Chris turned 18:

  • 75% of United States citizens 19 and younger were enrolled in school, up from the 51% in 1900, when his father went school.
  • 5.5% of men and 3.8% of women in the United States had completed 4-year college.
  • Childhood workforce participation plummeted to 3.3% for all 10- to 13-year-old males

-Arthur Miller's All My Sons

Keller: What's the matter with brooch?
Chris: (smiling) It's not English.
Keller: When I when to night school it was brooch.
Ann: (laughing) Well, in day school it's broach.

Arthur Miller's All My Sons

The Postwar Family

In the years following WWII, the flourishing economy gave rise to what was considered to be the “Golden Age of Capitalism.” The housing boom spawned by soldiers returning from war combined with the spike in defense spending to spark an economic resurgence. College enrollment soared as WWII veterans were assisted by the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, commonly known as the G.I. Bill, which provided education benefits.

  • In fall 1949, about 2.4 million students enrolled in colleges, which made up 15% of all 18- to 24-year-old Americans.
    • Despite the enrollment upswing, the proportion of women on campus dropped down to 30% as men returned from war and women were encouraged to return to more traditional homemaker roles.
  • In the 1940s and 1950s, the median educational attainment of 25- to 29-year-olds rose to 12.3 years.
  • The school enrollment rate for 7- to 13-year-olds reached 99% in the late 1940s.

New educational and occupational opportunities instilled confidence in the concept of the American Dream. It became common for children to leave home, go to college, and settle in new cities or suburbs in pursuit of a life beyond the class confines of their parents.

Joe Keller: I don't know, everybody's gettin' so Goddam educated in this country there'll be nobody to take away the garbage. It's gettin' so the only dumb ones left are the bosses... It's a tragedy: you stand on the street today and spit, you're gonna hit a college man.

Arthur Miller's All My Sons

While World War II and its economic impact meant upward mobility for many citizens in the United States, the financial independence it brought changed the role of the extended family and community in people’s lives. This tension was echoed in the home as the generations’ differences in access to education and perceived possibilities strained family dynamics.

Chris: I'll get out.  I'll get married and live some place else.  Maybe in New York.
Keller: Are you crazy?...You've got a business here.  What the hell is this?
Chris: The business! The business doesn't inspire me.
Keller: Must you be inspired?
Chris: Yes.  I like it an hour a day.  If I have to grub for money all day long at least at evening I want it beautiful.  I want a family, I want some kids, I want to build something that I can give myself to.

Arthur Miller's All My Sons

Suddenly, the business that Joe had spent his life building for Chris and Larry started to look more like a boundary than an opportunity.  Likewise, though Ann was still expected to marry and support her husband, her education supported her notions of independence far more than was ever possible for Kate. While the war abroad had ended, the generational conflict at home pressed on.