Historians William Strauss and Neil Howe analyzed American generations in their book Generations: The History of America’s Future. The first 20th-century generation was what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation,” whose members were born, Strauss and Howe said, between 1901 and 1924. They called this the “G.I. Generation” because of their role in war, but “The Greatest Generation” has resonated more.
Some members of the Greatest Generation are still alive. Those born near the end of their generation would be in their nineties today and are living history lessons.
Although the pace of change now at times seems dizzying, someone of the Greatest Generation has seen far more sweeping changes in life-altering inventions, world wars, huge economic setbacks and privations, as well as almost boundless prosperity.
A person born in 1901 entered a Victorian-influenced world of gaslight, horses and carriages, even though inventions were being developed that would transform the world. In spite of cataclysmic events such as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the world seemed stable. Europe’s monarchies were established and intermingled: Queen Victoria of England was the great grandmother of the famous Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, for example, as well as the grandmother of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Yet World War I (1914-1918) destroyed these imperial monarchies, setting some of them against the others, leaving only the King of England standing.
The first two decades of the 20th Century were turbulent times, but the best was yet to come. A member of the Greatest Generation whom we might meet in a nursing home today might have been born in 1920, the year that American women won the vote. This person would have entered a world scarred by World War I and its aftermath, but which in some ways presented a bright, new world of promise.
The Roaring Twenties
The Roaring Twenties of our Great’s childhood saw fabulous prosperity. The nation’s wealth doubled. Inventions like electric refrigerators, assembly line automobiles, the radio and motion pictures made life easier and more enjoyable.
The History Channel notes that for the first time Americans were in so much communication with one another that a mass popular culture emerged in the 1920s. While the manufacture and sale of alcohol was prohibited, young people danced wildly to the music of the Jazz Age. This Side of Paradise brought writer F. Scott Fitzgerald to fame; in 1925, his greatest novel, The Great Gatsby, was published. It remains on high school reading lists to this day. Stars like Charlie Chaplin and Clara Bow entertained on the silver screen.
The Great Depression
It was a sparkling world for our representative of the Greatest Generation, especially if he was male and white. Yet when our “Great” was nine years old, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression loomed. The year 1929 saw the biggest economic setback America has ever known. More than 30 million Americans had no income, and almost five million of them wound up on the streets. There was no social safety net–no Food Stamps, no Social Security, no rent subsidies or welfare. Soup kitchens, lines for bread, and homeless persons were common sights.
The Depression lasted ten grueling years, from 1929 to 1939. Our “Great” experienced tremendous economic struggles from age nine to 19.
The Great War
History was not going to let up on our Great. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, his generation had “a rendezvous with destiny.” Just as the Depression waned, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. Our representative “Great” was 21 years old–ripe for being drafted into the biggest armed conflict the world has seen.
Adolf Hitler had seized power in Germany in the 1930s, forming the National Socialist German Workers party. The “Nazis” promulgated a racist view of humanity wherein people of Germanic origin were thought to be superior. Everyone else–especially Jews–were considered so inferior as to render their existence undesirable. Jews were sent to concentration camps that would kill them by the millions. Japan, allied with Germany, attacked the United States.
Hundreds of thousands of young male Greats left the plow and factory behind and left for Europe and the Pacific. Women rolled up their sleeves, put on trousers, and took over the men’s work at home, planting the fields and “manning” the factories.
The Greats focused on winning the war at all costs. Those who were children in the era remember adults of the Greatest Generation planting “Victory Gardens,” rationing food, and using the expression “do your bit” to encourage aid to the war effort in the forms of saving pennies, collecting tin, and spotting foreign aircraft. The nation moved with one all-consuming purpose: to defeat the evil that was threatening civilization. Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation and the originator of the term, says that even as a young child, he could see that all the grown-ups around him moved with a deep sense of purpose and unity during the war years.
The Greats at Home
The Greatest Generation gave generously of itself; many of them never returned home. Those that did joined members of the Silent Generation (born between 1925 and 1942) to start the Baby Boom generation of children born between 1943 and 1960.
The Greatest Generation went to school on the G.I. Bill and applied their skills to building businesses, homes, families, and an economy that astonished the world. They then faced the Korean War and the Cold War, living for the first time under the threats of the nuclear age. Television brought the carnage of the Vietnam War into their living rooms, and some of their children went off to die in the jungles there while others protested, questioning if the war was just. They watched a man walk on the moon. They saw John F. Kennedy assassinated and listened to the stirring words of Martin Luther King, who was also felled by an assassin’s bullet. Members of the Greatest Generation held the presidency from 1960 until 1993.
Rendezvous with Destiny
If the Greatest Generation had a “rendezvous with destiny,” they fulfilled that destiny with a quiet courage that led farm boys out of the ripe fields of America into places like the River Kwai in Thailand, an infamous Japanese prison and labor camp. The Greatest Generation rolled tanks into Hitler’s capital, Berlin, ending his regime. The Greatest Generation stormed into the concentration camps and liberated their victims. They watched breathlessly as two atomic bombs at last brought the Japanese to surrender after millions of their generation had died fighting them in the Pacific.
The debt we owe to the Greatest Generation is immeasurable. Because of these devoted, heroic and hard-working persons who endured and brought about so many changes, the world is a better and brighter place. They met their destiny with a valor that spawned victory.
The woman in her nineties, dozing in a wheelchair in a nursing home, merits our gratitude and respect. She belongs to the Greatest Generation.
Brokaw, Tom. (2001). The Greatest Generation. New York: Random House.
History. The Roaring Twenties. Available at http://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties. Retrieved March 3, 2016.
Strauss, William and Howe, Neil. (2001). Generations: the History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. New York: Random House.