‘There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.’
—President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Tough. Resilient. Extraordinary…
These are the words often associated with the men and women who were born between the years 1901 and 1927.
Theirs was a fateful generation. Shaped and defined by a turbulent environment. And they experienced several critical events in human history.
Millions lost their jobs. Banks failed. Hunger and poverty became widespread.
This generation grew up during a traumatic recession. Through it, they learned profound lessons about life. How to endure physical hardship. How to build mental toughness. And, most important of all, how to maintain dignity and honour despite horrible circumstances.
Source: The Balance
The Great Depression on its own would have been a heavy burden for any generation to bear. Just look at how they were robbed of childhood happiness. Look at how they had to grow up in an awful hurry and face harsh realities.
Even when they did come of age, they still found no comfort or relief. Because they could see another challenge looming large on the horizon.
In 1939, fascism was on the merciless march, cutting a swathe from Asia to Europe, plunging the globe into the Second World War.
The generation that turned defeat to victory
This was a fully industrial conflict that knew no bounds.
The fanatical legions of Hitler and Tojo appeared unstoppable. The Axis were winning battle after battle. The Allies were losing on every front. Hope grew dimmer by the day.
Yet, with courage and tenacity, this generation rose to the occasion anyway. Inspired by the leadership of Roosevelt and Churchill, they fought hard for what they believed to be right and just.
In doing so, they participated in some of the most pivotal events of the 20th century. Their names are legendary. You probably already know them by heart.
The Battle of Britain. Pearl Harbor. The Siege of Stalingrad. The Battle of Midway. D-Day. Iwo Jima...
Source: National Geographic
Again and again, this generation stared down overwhelming odds. They endured setbacks and defeats. But they never gave up. They never took their eye off the ball. They kept pushing forward, inch by agonising inch, until they eventually turned the tide of the war.
Slowly, surely, fascism retreated. Democracy advanced. And through their bravery and determination, these men and women quite literally snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. And in the process, they changed the course of history.
The generation that set a new standard
The Second World War was the most destructive conflict ever.
By the end of it, up to 60 million people were dead. Most countries were reduced to smoking ruins and craters.
This was a total war, so the devastation was total.
The pain and loss were enormous.
This generation had paid a heavy price to achieve this victory. And when they returned home, they did not brag about their exploits. There was no time for that. They understood very well that the task ahead of them was colossal.
They had to rebuild the shattered world they had inherited. They had to set up new political, social, and economic institutions. They had to work hard to set the stage for what they hoped would be a fresh cycle of prosperity.
And with humility and diligence, that’s exactly what they achieved.
In short, these men and women laid the foundations for the world that we see and know today.
The generation that displayed humanity at its finest
Tom Brokaw, the American journalist, had a very special term for these men and women. He called them The Greatest Generation. It’s a mythic title that has secured its place in the popular imagination.
With reverence, with awe, Brokaw describes that generation like this:
‘At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love, and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting in the most primitive conditions possible across the bloodied landscape of France, Belgium, Italy, Austria, and the coral islands of the Pacific.
‘They answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs. They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest. They succeeded on every front. They won the war; they saved the world.
‘They came home to joyous and short-lived celebrations and immediately began the task of rebuilding their lives and the world they wanted. They married in record numbers and gave birth to another distinctive generation, the Baby Boomers. A grateful nation made it possible for more of them to attend college than any society had ever educated, anywhere.
‘They gave the world new science, literature, art, industry, and economic strength unparalleled in the long curve of history. As they now reach the twilight of their adventurous and productive lives, they remain, for the most part, exceptionally modest. They have so many stories to tell, stories that in many cases they have never told before, because in a deep sense they didn’t think that what they were doing was that special, because everyone else was doing it too.’
What can we learn from this generation?
There’s no denying it. We’re living in anxious times. The headlines are scary.
The coronavirus pandemic may well be the biggest defining moment of our lives since 9/11.
Right now, we’re wrestling with quarantine lockdowns and social distancing. It’s a crisis that transcends nations, transcends cultures.
But perception is a powerful thing, isn’t it?
And through it, we have enjoyed an unprecedented period of prosperity.
Comfort. Safety. Wealth…
We have taken all of that for granted.
And now it feels like that plush carpet has been suddenly pulled out from under our feet. The fall has been sharp, and we feel overwhelmed by misery and anguish.
Yet, even as we struggle with this 21st century negativity, we should still take time to look back and find inspiration in 20th century positivity.
The Greatest Generation has given us a role model we can emulate.
Tom Brokaw calls them ‘a generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor, a legacy of their formative years when they were participants in and witness to sacrifices of the highest order.’
Can we take a page from their book? Can we rise to the occasion like they did?
Remember: it’s all about keeping the faith. Being strong enough to take the blows. And being brave enough to push on despite the odds.
The Greatest Generation has given us so much. And we would do well to learn and internalise the lessons of their extraordinary journey.