Published Date

September 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 22: Will There Be Work for All? (1944)

Will there be a job for me when peace comes again? To Americans without number that is the most important of all postwar questions.

In the armed services men and women ask themselves and each other: Will I get my old job back again? What if I don’t want to go back to that kind of work, can I find a job using the higher skills I have learned in the service? Will I be able to go back to school or college? Will I have an opportunity to get vocational training-or retraining? What practical steps are being planned for demobilizing the millions of us in the armed forces and helping us to get back into civilian life? Will there be jobs on public work in case there are not enough jobs in private industry? Is there any danger of having to go on relief?

The worker employed in war industry asks: Will my war job be converted into a peace job? Is there going to be a lot of unemployment while industry is changing back to peacetime production? Will I be able to find another job before my unemployment insurance runs out? Will my job be taken by a returning member of the armed services? Is there any danger of my having to go on relief?

The families of both soldiers and war workers want to know: Will we have a higher or a lower standard of living in peacetime? Are we going back to our old home town or must we move elsewhere to find work?

Questions like these are not foolish, nor are they selfish. But they are a kind of personal question that cannot be answered here. No one can look into a crystal ball and come up with an answer to every GI’s question about whether he willget a job and what it will be. That depends pretty much on the man him-self. All kinds of assistance will be available to help the return-ing soldier reestablish himself as a civilian. But in the last analysis it will be up to him alone to decide whether he wants to go back to the farm, to set up a business for himself, to adopt a profession, or to become a wage earner. Like other people, each veteran will still have to decide what he wants to do and then go ahead and make a place for himself in his chosen occupation.

“A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterward. More than that no man is entitled to, and less than that no man shall have.”—Theodore Roosevelt in 1903

When you get right down to it, there are only two ways of assuring work for all men in uniform when they come home. One is to make certain through some kind of veterans’ preference applicable everywhere and at any time that every veteran has a job. The second is to see that there is work for everybody—ex-servicemen and nonservicemen alike.

No one begrudges special privileges to the man who has fought for his country. Job preference for veterans, especially in public employment, is an accepted part of the American tradition and the draft law entitles servicemen to get their old jobs back again. But if preference to veterans should be carried after the war to the extremes, it would certainly not cure unemployment and it probably would result in ill feeling.

The second way, having jobs for everybody, can be done by either of two alternative methods. One is to spread what work there is by shortening hours, slowing down production, and the like. As a last resort, spreading the work is better than permitting one part of the working population to be completely idle while the other part is plentifully employed. But it is not a constructive solution of the problem of unemployment since it does not create jobs or promote a higher standard of living.

The other alternative—holding the postwar level of employment high enough so that everyone who wants a job can be fully employed—is the generally accepted ideal. When it’s a matter of prosperity and full employment, people go up or down together.


What have we learned from the war?

Unemployment does nobody any good. Next to war it is the most appalling kind of waste in modern human relations. Ironically, war does away with it more quickly than anything else-but less permanently. Our own experience in the United States since 1940 shows how efficiently and effectively war can reduce unemployment. But we have no illusions that the “cure,” if such it can be called, is lasting. On the contrary, we are uneasily aware that the postwar period might bring an unemployment problem worse than in prewar years.

One thing we have learned: Mass joblessness is not inevitable. We have come to understand that employment rises and falls not in accord with some supernatural law but in response to human decisions, purposes, and activities. What has happened in the

course of our wartime effort to defeat a common enemy ought not to be impossible to achieve in a peacetime effort to make a common living. If we can put forth the same effort and imagination toward preserving peace that we have put into the making of war, abundant employment will reward us.

Employment, thus, becomes not an end in itself but a result of larger and more compelling purposes. Whether it develops to the full will depend, it would seem, ontwo things: (1) what kind of plans we make and what steps we take to put them into effect, and (2) whether as a nation, or a society of nations, we can muster as much determination to win a productive peace as we have mustered to produce victory in war.

In many ways our outlook for postwar employment is encouraging. At least we are aware of the problem this time and we are doing some heavy thinking about it in advance. We are getting some experience in dealing with demobilization problems before the big job comes. Over a million men have already been discharged from the armed services for one reason or another and several millions of war workers have been thrown out of work by cutbacks or changes in the production of war weapons.

What happened before?

When the Armistice came in November 1918, advance preparations for demobilization, either by government agencies or private organizations, had not been worked out. A few people foresaw trouble, but when hostilities ended, the war plants simply closed their doors, the government war agencies folded up, and the troops were brought back from France as fast as possible. All were demobilized without full realization of the consequences.

People talked a good deal about giving farms to the returning doughboys of 19 18 or of helping them in other ways to get civilian employment. But in 1918 reliable information about the size of the task was lacking. We did not have statistics on jobs or workers, we hadn’t given much thought to using public works in times of slack employment, we had no nation-wide system of employment offices, and we had no unemployment insurance funds to tide over laid-off war workers or demobilized soldiers.

As is happened, the situation took care of itself. For the United States the first World War was neither so long nor so “total” as to throw our economy out of gear. After a relatively rapid reconversion of industry we experienced a “boomlet,” which gave way to a sharp though short and generally unremembered period of unemployment in 1921. We came through it into the bright sunshine of the twenties and forgot about unemployment.

Not until the thirties did unemployment appear in the United States on a scale that required real study of the problem and the development of means to deal with it. After 1929 jobs disappeared at a sickening rate. By March and April of 1933 unemployment had reached a maximum figure variously estimated at 14 to 16.5 million workers. It took the public quite a while to realize that people were out of work in such numbers not through any fault of their own but because they were caught in a general depression which dragged with it the industry, trade, agriculture, and finance of the whole country and of the world.

When they finally did realize what was happening, it was too late to avert the depression. Instead, relief measures of various kinds were undertaken to help meet the problem of the unemployed. These grew rapidly in response to the rapidly mounting need, and the cost grew at a corresponding speed. An active debate still continues as to whether the measures really achieved their purpose.

“If any considerable unemployment develops in the United States, the resulting pressures will not only poison our whole relation with the Soviet Union, unsettle Anglo-American intercourse, and give a somewhat sinister tone to our foreign relations generally, but will also dangerously intensify group conflicts here at home.”—John H. G. Pierson, U.S. Department of Labor

What is going on now?

The various interpretations drawn from these experiences of the past-as to the relative worth of private or public actions in pre-venting and curing unemployment-naturally color much of the planning in progress today for full employment tomorrow. But this time, at any rate, there is no lack of attention to the problem; nor will there be lack of plans for dealing with it. Many Americans believe that the policies and practices adopted to achieve full employment in the coming peace period will decide the balance between government and private enterprise. Others think that it involves our international relations or goes deeper still and holds the fate of democratic government itself in the years ahead.

“National unity is at stake. Unless there are sufficient jobs, servicemen will be set against war workers, young against old, men against women, whites against Negroes. Widespread unemployment is an evil that saps family welfare and national morale. No government or economic system that permits it can long survive.”—CIO Postwar Planning Committee

No individual or group can make an exact blueprint of the postwar employment situation; even the estimates of the total labor force that will exist after the war differ over a range of several millions. But there is an overwhelming demand, confined to no single income group or political party, for job planning by industry, by labor, and by government. In response, and in contrast to the situation during the first World War, a very great deal of postwar job planning is being done this time during the course of the struggle.

How big is the task?

Stimulated by wartime needs, employment of American manpower has reached an all-time high in numbers and in proportion of the total labor force that is employed. As a matter of fact there is, despite some unemployment in spots, a general condition of “overemployment.” That is, the needs of war production have called to work old people who, in normal times, would be enjoying retirement and ease, housewives who in peacetime would be giving undivided attention to their homes and families, and children who ought to be going to school or playing outdoors. Another result is the lengthening of working hours beyond what has been considered necessary or desirable in the past. In short, employment is now above the level which the nation would choose in normal times if it were free to do so.

Bearing in mind that estimates change from time to time as the war develops—and are subject to further changes before it is over—here is the estimated size of the problem:

In July 1944 there were 11,300,000 men and women in the armed forces. As of the same date there were an estimated 55,000,000 people at work in industry and agriculture. The grand total—known as “the labor force” because its members are all actively looking for or engaged in some kind of occupation, military or civilian—amounts to 66,300,000 (subject to seasonal decrease of two to four million in the winter months). For purposes of comparison, there were about 55,000,000 in the labor force in 1940, of whom some 9,000,000 were unemployed.

What is the employment situation likely to be after the war? How many of this total of 66.3 million will want jobs? And how many jobs will there be? Here is where forecasts have to be surrounded with “ifs, ands, and buts.” One unknown factor that will influence the answer concerns the length of the war and the way it comes to an end. How many more months or years will it last? How long after one enemy collapses will the other fight on? Will the United States decide to maintain a large standing army in peacetime? The answers to these questions, clearly, will influence the total number of men and women mobilized in the aimed forces and in war industry and the rate and order of their demobilization.

Some people have proposed that men be discharged from the services only as there are assured jobs waiting for them. The opponents of this view contend that such a policy would make the Army a sort of work relief project for those whose release is delayed. They also avow that the prospect of being kept in uniform for an indefinite period after the war would undermine the men’s morale while the fighting is still in progress. Others point out that under the draft law men are to be held in the service not longer than six months after the end of the war-and there is no doubt that the men themselves, their families, and in fact the entire nation agree about their getting home as soon as possible.

On the other hand it is pointed out that the call for a large armed force may not end exactly six months after a peace treaty is signed, that there may be need for strong forces to police Germany and Japan for a long time. Or, it may be difficult to fix on any particular day that marks the “termination of the war” from which the six months can be measured. If there is a military need or if national policy decrees it, the law will be changed. And furthermore, even if it were possible to bring back from the corners of the earth and demobilize 8 to 1 o million men and women within the space of six months, it might be a disservice both to them and to the nation to dump them all at once into a reconversion situation where jobs were already scarce.

“It is important to hasten the time of mustering out, but also important to provide for readjustment from military to civilian life as rapidly as possible. We want not only to get the men out of the armed services; we want also to get them into the peace services, where their skills and abilities can be fully recognized, utilized and rewarded.”—National Resources Planning Board

What will happen to the labor force?

The conditions just mentioned have to do mostly with the period immediately after the end of hostilities. But the experts agree that the problem of postwar employment has two aspects: (1) the transition period from war to peace, lasting perhaps two years after the close of hostilities but actually already under way; and (2)’ the long-time view. Some “ifs” which bear on the second as well as on the first period have to do with the number of war workers who will want to keep on working. Is the number of people who “retire” from the labor force likely to be large of small? This will depend partly on how, many war workers are persons who do not normally work and have only been added to the employment rolls because of the emergency. They are the housewives, the high-school and college students, the over-age workers, and the like. For instance, an estimated 600,000 elderly people who are eligible for federal retirement benefits have not claimed them, presumably because they are still working. Another 60,000 have come out of retirement and given up old-age benefits to go back on the job.

These extra and temporary additions to the labor force—the ones who will presumably not continue working or looking for work after the war—are estimated at from 4 to 8.5 million per-sons. The school-age children, of course, are subject to such legal controls as child labor laws and school attendance regulations. For the others, in the absence of legal or extralegal job discriminations because of sex or age, it is a matter of individual choice between the attractions of work or leisure.

Before 1940 the armed forces of the United States totaled a good deal less than half a million men. Nobody knows yet how big the nation’s future peacetime defense forces will be, but agreement is general that they will be materially larger. The number, whatever it turns out to be, is in effect a further withdrawal from the total of people looking for civilian jobs.

But at the same time the number of people in the labor force is steadily increasing. Every year more new workers enter at the bottom of the scale than retire at the top. The increase averages somewhere between one-half and three-quarters of a million a year, or roughly 1 per cent. And American labor is growing not only in numbers, but also in efficiency. Since 1900 the output per man-hour in American industry has shown a steady increase of about 2.5 per cent per year; thus with fewer people working shorter hours we produced in 1940 more goods and services than in 1929 by quite a bit. The rate of increase has probably been, faster during the war, despite the use of unskilled and substandard labor, because we have applied top production engineering without regard to cost.

During the period of demobilization a large number of people will be thrown into the labor market. The number has been estimated all the way from 10 to 30 million; a safe estimate would appear to be that within two and a half years after the end of hostilities in Europe, and assuming that the Japs fold up a year later, upward of 15 million people will be demobilized. The Brookings Institution in 1943 added up 9.5 million from the armed forces, 1.4 from federal war agencies (mostly civilian employees of the Army and Navy), and 6.9 million from strictly war industry to get a minimum of 17.8 million. Later estimates have tended to be a bit smaller, but none of them ventures to estimate the numbers who may be let out of work on indirect war production.

“We must aim at a level of output 40 per cent higher than that achieved in 1940 if the 55 million people in this country who want jobs will be employed.”—U. S. Chamber of Commerce

The core of the problem

If it is assumed (and please notice that this is not a prediction) that 6 million people will voluntarily withdraw from the labor market, that z million are to be retained in the permanent defense forces, and another 3 million suffer unemployment at any one time, America will have the task of providing in the neighborhood of 55 million jobs. You can add a million to one figure or take it away from another, but you always end up with a need of about 10 million more jobs than there were in 1940, the best prewar year.

Pessimists say that the task cannot be done and predict as many as 12 million unemployed. Optimists assert that if the problem is handled properly the specter of mass joblessness can be permanently banished. But almost no one thinks that the change-over period will pass without temporary unemployment for several millions of would-be workers. As a matter of fact, even under conditions of long-term “full employment,” it is usually granted that there will always be a certain amount of what is called “frictional unemployment,” that is, people changing jobs, seasonally unemployed, temporarily laid off, and so forth. This “normal float,” the experts say, should not be a cause of concern unless it goes beyond about 4 million.

What, then, is full employment?

“It seems almost certain that postwar output must exceed the best prewar year. If it should be no more than in 1940 there would be the nine million who were unemployed in 1940 plus the two and one half million added to the civilian labor force between 1940 and 1946 plus eight million who would be displaced by improvements in efficiency over the six years-a total of over nineteen million unemployed.”—S. M. Livingston, U. S. Department of Commerce

The idea of “full employment,” it is now clear, needs some definition. We usually think that it existed in the prosperous years of the twenties. But even in 1929 there was unemployment amounting to nearly 6 per cent of the civilian labor force, according to Department of Commerce figures. At the peak of “over-employment” in 1944 there are nevertheless close to a million people looking for work, which is 1.8 per cent of the civilian or about 1.5 per cent of the total civilian and military labor force. In other words, even in “normal times” full employment does not rule out a situation in which from 2 to 5 per cent of the people who want to work cannot find jobs at any one moment. For this reason, and to avoid misunderstanding, some authorities prefer to call it “high level employment” rather than “full” employment.

Most people when they speak of full employment simply mean a job for everyone willing and able to work. But what is a job? Do we mean just any kind of work that will provide enough income for the worker to keep body and soul together? Or do we mean the kind of work in which he can put his highest skills to best use and gain an increasing standard of living? Do we mean a casual job at skimpy hours and uncertain pay, or sweatshop labor at long hours and low wages, or do we mean good conditions of work with hours and wages such that recreation, education, good homes, good health, and the better things of life will be available? Ideally we mean the last, though in practice we have to take something less perfect.

This brings up the very important question of quality as well as quantity of jobs. In demanding “a real job for every able-bodied American who wants to work,” Mr. Philip Murray of the CIO explained that he did not mean a “ `made’ job, a relief job, or a fake job.” Mr. Paul Hoffman, head of the Committee for Economic Development, has declared as to this point, “Having measured the task in terms of jobs, may I say . . . that it seems terribly important to me that our goal be stated in terms of productivity rather than jobs. We might have `jobs for all,’ to make use of a popular phrase, but they might not be the right kind of jobs. If they were not productive and well-paid, we might be marching straight down the road to disaster.”

Thus “full employment,” in the realistic sense in which it must be discussed, does not mean that every last individual who ever had a job or thinks he might like to have one will be employed as his heart desires forever. After all, everybody can’t be the president of a bank-or even a vice-president! Nor does it mean that everybody who wants a job gets it by a process of spreading the work thin. That way neither uses people’s abilities to the full nor gives them enough income to live on.

How do different people approach the problem?

It was pointed out earlier that never before has so much serious thought been given to assuring an opportunity to work to every person willing and able to work. Business and business groups are measuring potential demand for their, products and planning plant expansion. Labor is seeking measures of rapid reconversion and wants to insure work and steady; year-round income to workers. Government is planning its own role in providing over-all controls and in filling the gaps with security measures.

Both houses of Congress, practically every department and agency of the federal administration, the forty-eight states, county and city and village governments-all have their own planning committees at work. The United States Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and their subsidiary groups are concerned with the problem. The Committee for Economic Development, a nation-wide organization of business-men set in motion by the Department of Commerce, has no other aim but to stimulate postwar job planning. The American Federation of Labor, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the veterans’ organizations, the fraternal orders, and any number of other groups of all types and sizes are at work on the problem. Many of them are publishing studies or plans of one kind or another.

The public opinion polls, too, have entered the field to discover how many people expect or want to continue working after the war and in what kind of jobs; or conversely, to learn how many people will want to buy what kinds of articles when shortages and rationing are over. The same consciousness of the size and importance of the problem that prompts this vigorous activity has likewise brought business, labor, and government to cooperate as never before on postwar employment. At the same time, nevertheless, a great deal of disagreement prevails as to which one of them should take the lead in planning and as to what should be the attitude of the others. On one side of the argument are the people who believe that governmental preparedness for unemployment-through the planning of public work, social security measures, and other controls—obstructs the creation of jobs in private business. On the other side are those who believe that no necessary conflict exists but rather a need for balancing between “private initiative” and “government.”

The “Management Poll” of Fortune Magazine is presumed to be a reasonably accurate reflection of the opinions of the leaders of American business and industry. Two out of three of the business executives it questioned early in 1944 answered “No” to the question: “Do you think it is a function of government today to see to it that substantially full employment is maintained?” A majority favored independent provision by each company against postwar layoffs. The favorite reconversion policy of those sampled was “Simply remove all wartime controls as of a certain date after the fighting stops.”

No such handy measure of opinion among the leaders of American labor is available at the moment. However, it appears to be a safe generalization that labor leaders tend to take a contrary point of view-that government not only should act to assure a job for everyone, but should take the major responsibility and the leading part in accomplishing full employment. Between the risk of mass unemployment in a system of absolutely free enterprise or the assurance of full employment, at the price of increased governmental supervision of the economy, labor appears to favor the second.

The basic policy of the federal government is for determination by Congressional action. A great many public officials have given their opinions and a great deal of study is being put into the matter. The consensus in both the administrative and legislative branches would appear to place the primary responsibility for giving jobs on the shoulders of business. It would look upon government as obligated at once to create conditions favorable for private employment and to stand by with plans for public employment in case of need. In any event, as the amount of plan-ning testifies, government on the federal, the state, and the local level does not intend to be caught unprepared for peace.

Next section: What Is Actually Being Done about Postwar Employment?