September 15, 2011

Reflections: My Unnamed Generation Should Be Called the Lucky Generation Which Gives Us a Special Obligation To Help Others

With all that's happened in the past month or so -- the "best trip ever," the car crash, hospitalization, earthquake, hurricane, sale of my company, and hints that I may not be immortal -- I've decided it's time to reflect on where I've been and on plans for the future. This first reflection is on my growing up in "The Lucky Generation."

I was born in 1929, so I'm somewhere between these two well-known generations:

  • The Greatest Generation: This is the term coined by Tom Brokaw to describe the generation that grew up during the Great Depression and went on to fight World War II. It's usually defined as those born between 1901 and 1925, although those born in the earlier years grew up in the 1920s (the core years of the "Lost Generation") and are more closely associated with the values of that generation. The core of the GG is generally viewed as those born between 1914 and l924. The depression and World War II usually are cited as the defining events for the GG. I would add the passage of the GI Bill of Rights. 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 having the impact that the GI Bill had on transforming the middle class and bolstering the economy.
  • The Baby Boom Generation:  The core of this generation consists of those born during the post-war baby boom years of 1945 to 1964. They grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, a time of great affluence in North America and Europe. The years from 1947 to 1977 are viewed by many as the Golden Years for the U.S. economy. Those born in those years, as a group, were the healthiest and wealthiest generation up to that time. For most of our history, each generation grew up expecting progress to continue so that they would end up surpassing their parents in well-being. This optimism was particularly true for those in the BB generation. Unfortunately, it looks now that they may have been the last generation to ride that wave.
So What About Those of Us Born Between 1926 and 1945?
Do we even have a name?  Yes, according to Wikipedia.  Want to take a guess at what it is?

"The Silent Generation"
Ever hear of it? I hadn't. This name for my generation was first used in a 1951 Time magazine cover story. It described our generation as grave and fatalistic, conventional, possessing confused morals, expecting disappointment but desiring faith, and, for women, wanting both a career and a family.

The article's unflattering description of the generation continues:
Youth today is waiting for the hand of fate to fall on its shoulders, meanwhile, working fairly hard and saying almost nothing. The most startling fact about the younger generation is its silence. With some rare exceptions, youth is nowhere near the rostrum. By comparison with the Flaming Youth of their fathers and mothers, today's generation is a still, small flame. It does not issue manifestos, make speeches, or carry posters. It has been called the "Silent Generation." 
This name gained further currency when the historian/writer William Manchester commented that the members of this generation were "withdrawn, cautious, unimaginative, indifferent, unadventurous and silent."

My generation also has been called the Post-War Generation and the Seekers, when it isn't ignored altogether. Any of which might be preferable to "The Silent Generation," given its unflattering description.

My Choice --"The Lucky Generation"
Rather than pick a name for my generation based on an attempt to identify its personality traits, I've looked instead at the events that shaped our lives (and, of course, particularly my life).

Many of us grew up in families that were really struggling to get by during the 1930s. Then World War II changed everything. The economy finally climbed out of the deep depression. Perhaps even more important, we experienced a feeling of unity behind a meaningful cause that unfortunately I've not experienced since (except maybe those first few days after 9/11).

Most of us were too young to fight in the war. We graduated from high school late in the war days or after. Our college years were enriched by going to school with the older, more life-experienced vets, many of whom were the first in their families to get a college education and thus were determined, dedicated students.

We got out of college just as the postwar boom in the economy was taking off. The war had transformed the U.S. into becoming the world's leading manufacturer. Most of the factories built during the war made a successful transition to peacetime production following the years of wartime shortage and rationing.

The years 1947 to 1977 are viewed as the Golden Age for the U.S. economy. We spent that time getting established in our careers. Thanks in part to the patterns established by the negotiated gains of the major unions, most of us grew to expect a wage raise every year, a promotion every few years, and the addition of new and improved "fringe benefits."

We also benefited from being able to surf just ahead of the baby boom wave, getting its beneficial impact on the economy while not having to face the increased competition from the surge of new entrants to the job market.

Sure, we went through recessions. But most of the time those setbacks meant mostly the layoff of factory workers, many of whom, thanks to their union contracts, were entitled to supplemental unemployment benefits from their employers. Those workers were also protected by recall rights once the economy improved. White-collar workers usually had much more job security, unlike today when even in relatively good times large numbers of white-collar jobs disappear as corporations downsize in cost-cutting designed to adjust the company's profits to meet Wall Street's expectations.

Meanwhile, medical science was making dramatic strides to protect us against many of the diseases that threatened -- and killed -- our parents.

Finally, we had political leaders in both parties who often could inspire us and who often worked together across party lines to pass beneficial legislation. As a perhaps surprising example, President Nixon -- either by executive order or by collaboration with a Democratic Congress -- had these achievements:

  • Creation of the Environment Protection Agency (EPA)
  • First Earth Day (1970)
  • Clean Air Act of 1970
  • Creation of Occupational Safety and Health Act
  • Implementation by executive order of the Philadelphia Plan, the first significant federal affirmative action plan for minorities
  • Endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution 
This Luck Carries With It an Obligation To Lend a Helping Hand To Those Struggling with Today's Much Tougher Times
Life was so much easier for me and my generation than it is today for my children and, especially, my grandchildren. For me at least, that means I should do whatever I can to help family members and others who are struggling to get ahead or at least not fall back in these difficult times.

More on that in a future post.


Kavan Peterson said...

Wonderful post John -- as usual I am enthused and impressed with your positive outlook on life. Dr. Bill Thomas happens to be working on a book that will explore the "post-war generation" from some new angles and I'm sure he'll find your post very interesting.
I am pretty familiar with the "Silent Generation" moniker. I've heard it used to refer to the fact that your generation was small in comparison to surrounding generations and therefore lacked as much political and cultural clout. For instance, no member of the "Silent" generation was ever elected president (McCain probably had the last chance). I'm not sure how relevant that is but it's kind of interesting.

Thank you for your good will!

John said...

Thanks Kavan. Your added remarks about the "silent generate" are interesting.

I've been brooding more about my good fortune in the timing of my birth and what the children born in the 21st Century are facing.  I may try to get these thoughts into a blog post this  week. 

I'll be very interested in reading Dr. Bill's book.