May 28, 2016

In My 87 years, I've Seen Us Go from the Contagious Optimism of our "Greatest Generation" to the Mean-Spirited Anger of Today

I was born on May 26, 1929... 87 years ago. So I'm part of the generation between two well-known ones -- the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers.

Tom Brokaw assigned the description "Greatest Generation" to describe those people who grew up during the Great Depression and went on to fight World War II. It's often defined to include those born between 1901 and 1925, but the core of the GG generally includes people born between 1914 and 1924.

The Baby Boomers include people born during the post-war Baby Boom years of 1945 and 1964.

My generation is not as well known and doesn't really have a designated name. But I call it the "Lucky Generation," and I am an example.

I graduated from high school in 1945 at age 16. I was too young to be called up for service in World War II. But I benefited from going to college with the returning veterans, who were probably more dedicated to getting a good education than any generation before or since. And I certainly benefited from the post-war boom years from 1945 to 1964.

My early years were spent in Ithaca, New York, home of Cornell University. Our family wasn't poor, but coming up with the money to pay the rent each month was often a struggle.

So after graduating from high school, I worked for a year and saved up enough money to enroll in Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences as a day student. But after three semesters of paying the high (!) tuition of $600 dollars a year, I ran out of money. Fortunately, Cornell is a combination of endowed colleges and NY State land-grant colleges where all you had to pay was the $50 per-semester fee.

So I looked at the state colleges. My choices were agriculture, home economics, veterinary medicine, and industrial and labor relations. Not surprisingly, I chose The New York State College of Industrial and Labor Relations... the area in which I spent my entire working life.

The Impact of the GI Bill
The passage of the 1947 GI Bill of Rights was the biggest government welfare program ever enacted by Congress. By the time it ended in 1966, 7.8 million vets had used it for college education or vocational training, and another 2.4 million had taken out home loans backed by the Veterans Administration. No other single piece of legislation comes close to transforming the middle class and bolstering the economy.

The Golden Years
The years between 1947 and 1977 are often viewed as the Golden Years for the U.S. economy. Labor unions represented about a third of the workforce. Negotiating with major employers, the unions introduced significant "fringe" benefits concerning pensions, health insurance, vacations, and the like. Union contracts usually called for annual across-the-board wage increases for all employees. Annual wage hikes of 3% were fairly common.

To keep their own employees in place, non-union employers soon felt compelled to match those union benefits. Soon enough, most employers -- union and non-union -- also added merit increases to reward especially productive employees. In these boom years, promotions into better-paying jobs, or into management, were common.

We Interrupt This Post for a Special Bulletin!

I started this post on Thursday, my birthday. It is now Saturday afternoon, and I'm just getting back to it... and dreading it. My plan was to contrast then with now.

Back then, we had a booming economy and a much more equitable distribution of financial rewards than we have today. I had planned to provide lots of data to explain the anger we've seen in the primary elections from the supporters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Instead, I decided to take a break and spend some time on the back porch with my resident family. Here's are several photos I took:

You know what? This is my blog, so I decided to put aside this post for the rest of the weekend. It's my birthday present to me.

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