The Greatest Generation (1901-1927)
The Silent Generation (1928-1945)
Baby Boomers (1946-1964)
As human beings, we love to categorize. But categorizing generations is only statistically convenient.
We are assigned a generation according to which 16-18 year period we fall into. But in a world that changes daily – hourly – a single generation holds multiple groups that experience the world in completely different ways.
I am a late Boomer; my brother an early Boomer. We were raised by latecomers to The Greatest Generation.
My brother was idealistic during the early part of his life, a passionate member of the 60s generation. I watched as ideals of equality took form, and saw his battles with my father. Fearsome battles that warned me to keep silent or undergo the same punishment. Fearsome battles Brother couldn’t possibly win – in a household where the winner of an argument was he who could shout loudest. But I admired my brother as he spoke for fairness; as he [initially] foresaw a world that could improve for most, if not all. And in spite of my mother’s efforts, I glimpsed protests on TV, and saw protestors who were my brother’s age. Would have included him except for parental threat.
But as Brother became older, the world changed. Became physically easier but emotionally and financially more difficult. His hopeful outlook became one of cynicism, echoed by Logan’s Run.
In adulthood, early Boomers were told to attend college to avoid the draft, by parents who boasted of their own service during World War II and criticized those who escaped Vietnam through Canada. Early Boomers joining the workforce were faced with declining job prospects and opportunity, while honoring parental insistence that success only took hard work and putting away for the future. They took on their parents’ personas, because somehow that would protect them. Their parents had succeeded and, if early Boomers persevered and behaved like their parents, so must they.
And in some ways they did. Their wealth grew, but rather than in leaps and bounds, by hops. With time, the hops became stumbles, and they struggled against reality and against parental implication that they were failures. Why hadn’t they succeeded? Why hadn’t they become rich? In a world where money became the sole determiner of human worth.
But the world had been different for our parents. They experienced great hardship early on – The Great Depression; World War. And after the devastation, they reaped the benefits of rebuilding. Of growth. And by midlife, many found themselves wealthier than ever imagined.
As their children grew into adults, The Greatest Generation pressured them to support candidates and institutions that would continue the bounty – at least for themselves. My mother confessed that she opposed universal healthcare, because her own Medicare might be impacted in a negative way. It was good for her; not necessarily the country, or even her own children.
As parents, The Greatest Generation was shocked when the young adults they produced rebelled. Why did they think the world could be a better place for everyone? Why couldn’t it stagnate at pretty-good-for-a-moderately-large-group; and exceptionally good for a few?
They came down hard on their children to get them in line. The more their children espoused love, the more The Greatest Generation espoused hatred for anyone unlike themselves. An emotional war that continues to divide.
As adults, early Boomers were torn between doing what was right and fitting into their own families. All the while, however, rules and possibilities were changing in the background, making it less likely that they would experience the prosperity of upper-middle-class parents. Of course, there was always the hope of an inheritance to latch onto, provided relational norms were honored. Family interactions were both friendly and tense; love being present, but one generation controlling the veritable survival of the next.
So it’s not unexpected that early Boomers are often angry seniors, chanting, “I did it all by myself, with nobody’s help but my own.” Although untrue, it expresses how they feel. They know they’ve struggled, but cannot point to a specific obstacle. Know they’ve fought, but can’t articulate the particular battle. The mantra protects the story that’s been drilled into them. That anyone worthwhile can succeed, if they only work hard and save for the future. It’s all up to them.
Meanwhile, late Boomers remembered the crusades of older siblings; connected with the calls to fairness. But they began adulthood in an unsteady world, in which new rules made success even less likely. They watched as company consumed company and retirement plans were scrapped during corporate transactions or declarations of bankruptcy.
As a young adult, I encountered a woman who’d worked 18 years at a bank, under the promise of retirement benefits at 20. But her pension was lost in a corporate transaction, and those 18 years of service produced nothing but a broken promise. As well as society’s condemnation. “She should have planned for the future.” Should have planned in a world changing so rapidly that each day became foreign, and where long-term expectations became obsolete.
During The Greatest Generation’s lifetime, these were some of the changes that that propelled things forward:
- Populations were small, but growing. There was less competition for housing and increasing opportunity for business growth.
- Interest on savings went up to 10%, and lingered there for years.
- Banks paid several percentage points on savings and checking accounts.
- An 1,100 square foot house could be built for $10,000. Sales contracts were a single page.
- Investments became transparent and available to anyone.
- Gains were made in employment. The 40 hour workweek was established. Everyone took a half-hour to hour for lunch. There were two paid 15-minute breaks. Most employees received 2 weeks of paid sick leave and 2 weeks of paid vacation. And all benefits started the first day of employment. Companies trained their employees, free of charge. Except for CEOs and other upper level employees, pre-employment contracts were non-existent.
- Union membership grew, increasing wages and pension payments.
- Early on, most healthcare could be paid out of pocket. Later, employers provided generous insurance plans.
- Social Security was implemented and began at age 65.
- Medicare was implemented.
- Women had just gained the right to vote when The Greatest Generation was born. Women continued to make gains, eventually being allowed to wear pants, hold jobs, live independently, work and go out in public while pregnant, and manage their own bodies.
- Healthcare improved, extending lives.
But gradually, these gains fell away and, for late Boomers, no longer exist or are in the process of elimination. Although late Boomers are less angry about the decline, since decline has been the norm of their experience, they remember the cries for fairness and continue that cry in their hearts. Don’t mind their comments of, “What are you going to do?” and “It’s beyond my control.” Late Boomers are expressing frustration, but the towel is still gripped in their hands.
My life experience has been very different from that of my brother, even though we’re both Boomers. Even though we’re from the same household. He was raised during a period of vehemently suppressed belief. I was raised during a period where that belief had already been silenced, but was secretly held. He lived with a couple just starting out in life. I lived with parents who were more settled and experiencing the benefits of economic boom. As an adult, Brother slowly descended a mountain trail. Years later, the trail was gone; the mountain eroded into a cliff, its base strewn with rubble. My brother tried to emulate his parents; I knew I could not, the world being so changed.
We’re a mix of experiences, and those experiences have influenced our behavior and beliefs. Personally, I still believe the world can be an ever-improving place for most people, if not everyone. And when things are gamed against that forward progress – when entities intentionally prey upon the anger and fear of suppressed generations to obtain or maintain power – I still think that enough of us can come together to make a difference and win through love rather than hatred.
Maybe I’m naïve, but silenced hope is the experience of my “generation,” whatever that term may mean.