Lost Generation Veteran Gets Respect

The world’s oldest man, Henry Allingham, died on Saturday in a nursing home. He was born in 1896, making him a member of the “Lost Generation” (born 1883-1900) that fought in WWI. The Lost Generation is similar in character Generation X (born 1961-1981) in that they were/are individualistic, pragmatic and tough. For example, Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown had this to say about Henry:

“He was a tremendous character, one of the last representatives of a generation of tremendous characters.”

This stands in stark contrast to what people would say about the generation following the Lost: the GI Generation (born 1901-1924) who are referred to as being heroes rather than “characters”. The GI’s are known as “The Greatest Generation” while the Lost Generation were the wild youth of the “Roaring 20’s” and although many fought in WWII, they were often the grizzled leaders (think Tom Hanks’ character in “Saving Private Ryan”) rather than the noble young warriors.

This bears a strong resemblance to today’s Generation X. We certainly are not looked up to as heroes and are often accused of being the cause of many of our current social ills. But I believe our generation will be instrumental in building a new foundation for our society. Although Millennials (born 1982-200?) will be fighting on the front lines and get most of the glory, Generation X’ers will be doing the dirty work and heavy lifting of change in our society.

I also think it’s likely that we will eventually get a grudging respect, as Henry and his generation now have. Fifty years from now we will be remembered as the tough elders who were willing to take the worst of these troubled times on the chin. We will be remembered as “characters”, which is fine with me.

For more on how the cycle of generations repeats, see the “Start Here” section of my blog.

American Girl Books and Generations

I have been meaning to write this post for some time, but perhaps I am a little embarrassed about the topic. My 8 year-old daughter is into the American Girl Doll Books and we often read them to her during the day or as bed-time books.  At first I rejected the whole American Girl Doll thing as terribly mainstream. Since our kids go to a Waldorf School, we are fairly counter-culture in how we go about parenting. Just look at the things:


They reminded me too much of the whole “Just Like Me” dolls and the hyper-narcissism that they imply. Our daughter did manage to get two American Girl Dolls (as gifts) but I really started to balk when the books started showing up in the house (from the library).

But then I took the time to actually read one of them to my daughter and I realized they were fairly interesting. Each book is based on a specific girl from a period in history (I think there are several based on current times as well).  All the girls in the stories are between the ages of 10 and 12 (I think) and are based in different eras and generations:

Julie, 1970’s (Generation X, born 1961-1981)

Molly, 1940’s (Silent Generation, born 1925-1942)

Kit, 1930’s (GI Generation, born 1901-1924)

When my wife and I were reading through the “Julie” stories we were struck by how well the reflected the times we grew up in. Of course it did not hurt that Julie lived in in the San Francisco Bay Area (where my wife grew up) and she was in exactly the same age group. But the portrayal of the times, with divorced parents and rebellious older siblings was a good picture of those times. Likewise the world of Kit, growing up in the Depression Era gave a very clear (and different) picture of what those times were about. The books have a somewhat moralistic tone (the kids are mostly do-gooders) but the times they live in are fair representations of history.

Reading the stories about the 1930’s were a particularly interesting lesson. One of the important concepts of generations is that we often repeat generational cycles because we don’t have a living history of those cycles. But books that give a 10-year-olds view of the Great Depression (a time similar to our current part of the cycle) are a great window into how to view that era and the people living in it. Hearing the compromises, fears and triumphs of kids living in the Depression (who would later go on to be the WWII heroes) is a unique perspective. Giving kids a perspective on what other children their age, in different times, have dealt with is a gentle introduction to how generational cycles work. My daughter did roll her eyes when she heard me say something about generations after reading one of the books. The kids hear enough about that stuff with Dad around…

It is also interesting to note that although the GIs, Silents and Generation X are represented in the series, there are no stories about the youth of the Boomers (born 1943-1960). Did Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best cover that period already or was their childhood just so boring that no one would be interested?

Which Generation is Responsible for the Crisis?

There is a lot of debate about who is to blame for our current economic woes, the likely culprit is probably not an individual or organization, but rather an entire generation.

Generations span 20 or more birth years and each has a different character. Some certainly blame the Baby Boomers (born 1943-1960) while others place the blame on Generation X (born 1961-1981). For a brief overview of generational research see my “start here” page. But what generation is most responsible for our current crisis?

The Baby Boomers were born during a cultural “High”, a time when the American Dream seemed attainable and the upward path of the country seemed Manifest Destiny. They were doted on during their youth and encouraged to be independent thinkers by their parents (many of whom were of the GI Generation, born 1901-1924). By the time they reached young adulthood in the late 1960’s they started to rebel against the established culture of the GI’s by protesting against an ugly war and cultural values they did not agree with. Through the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s the Baby Boomer generation managed to tear down most of the social institutions and norms that had been created by the GI Generation. Although the Boomers were adept at challenging the establishment, they were not nearly as capable at building a new society.

It was in this cultural storm that Generation X came of age. Because of the battles being waged by the Boomers against the established GI’s the young Gen X’ers were mostly ignored during their youth. They became the alienated young adults in the 80’s and 90’s who had to figure out how to get by on their own. As a generation they are extremely independent and pragmatic, but also given to cynicism and selfishness.

It’s easy to say that the Boomers started the downfall with their expectation of extravagant lifestyles and their anti-civic nature. It’s also easy to blame the Gen X’ers, who don’t really seem to care much about the direction society is headed as long as they can protect themselves. But there is another possible culprit in this scenario, and it’s not the Silent Generation (born 1925-1942) that came after the GI’s and before the Boomers. They were the “go along to get along” types that provided little leadership or direction (as a group), but also should not shoulder much blame.

No, the generation most responsible for our current crisis is Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation, the GI’s who built our unsustainable American Dream in the first place. The Boomers were right when they called out their elders and stated that the American Dream was shallow and unattainable for a majority of the people. That did not stop the GI’s from continuing to lead as if it could go on forever. A long series of Presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush Sr.) along with a vast majority of the legislature and corporate leaders all hailed from the GI Generation, and they mostly believed that our good times could carry on forever, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. This is part of the reason that the various politicians in the late 60’s and early 70’s were so stunned by the Boomer reactions to their leadership. Didn’t everyone agree that the American Dream was the perfect ideal? Well, no, said the Baby Boomers, but unfortunately they did not have a singular viable alternative.

Although the GI Generation might suggest prudence and wagged a finger at our excesses in the last 20 years, they were the ones that chose the direction and got the ball rolling. Yes, they won a war against an evil enemy. Yes, they bolstered a society to have pride in its amazing accomplishments. But the Greatest Generation definitely suffered from the hubris of not knowing when to say when.

This is also a cautionary tale for the young Millennial Generation (born 1981-200?). You have been given all the tools to succeed by your parents, and will face many daunting challenges. I am confident that the Millennials will see us through these difficult times and come out victorious. But there are already early signs of the hubris that the GI’s had that may lead to yet another false ideal and another turn in the cycle of generations. Is it possible for this generation to be both strong and humble? Will they have the strength of character to see that the values that pull us out of a crisis are not necessarily the right foundations for a healthy society? Only time will tell.

The Boomer Generation Legacy

Boomers are just now realizing that they want to leave a legacy. Is it too late?

I was recently talking with a friend at a non-profit and he was telling me about the challenges faced by the organization. Most of the company is getting on in years, mostly Boomers (born 1943-1960) who have been with the organization for a very long time. Because it is an non-profit, they are driven by a desire to fulfill the “mission”. As many of these Boomers are nearing retirement, they are realizing that they would like to “leave a legacy” behind them. The only problem is that each of them has a different vision of what that legacy should be.
This is a uniquely Boomer reality: the desire to leave a legacy which only arise as they are getting close to departing from their work-life. The challenge with this desire is two-fold:

  • If everyone wants to leave their own legacy at an organization, the organization is likely to have troubles being true to a singular mission
  • You can’t build a legacy in just a few years

Many Boomers have spent their lives rebelling against a system that they saw as corrupt and shallow. They accomplished this goal, tearing down the American Dream society built by the GI Generation (born 1901-1924), and I would argue it needed tearing down. But because their focus was inward and individual, they were not able to rebuild an new society based on their vision(s), at least not in their midlife (from 42-63). But now as they enter Elderhood (64-84) they are realizing that building something lasting might be possible with the enlisted help of their heroic children (Millennials, born 1982-200?).

All that is reasonable enough, but the problem arises when each individual Boomer wants to build their ideal and leave their mark on an organization or society in general. There just is not enough room for all those ideals. The other problem is that to build a true legacy you must work your entire life towards that goal. You must be true to a singular vision from very early in life. It is not something you can adopt at 63 and expect to bring it to fruition before your are too tired to continue. Many Boomers will leave a legacy, but it is likely that they started working on that legacy a long time ago.

But for many Boomers this is not a deterrent. Many Boomers see the opportunity to finally build something lasting instead of taking down something they despised. It is a worthy goal, but it must be done with a recognition that it will be another generation will be deciding which ideal to pursue and the time for talk and squabbling is almost over. This pushing and pulling for the reins will become more common in the next few years while we decide what ideal to build upon.

This attitude reminds me of the leadership of several failed startups I have worked at. I have often said that the leaders of these companies became so enamored of their part in the story of the company that they stopped caring where the story was going. They just wanted to be sure that they were a part of the story, even if that meant it ended badly. Let’s hope Boomers don’t make the same mistake.

Generations Explained: Understand Generational Cycles in just 10 Minutes

If you are struggling to understand the effects of generations on our society, this basic primer will give you a grounding for further research. Delivered in a fast-paced 10 minute video that explains each of the living generations and where they are headed

You have heard of Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and perhaps even the Silent and GI Generations. But do you know how they are fundamentally different from each other? Each holds specific values, particularly around what they believe is an ideal society. This 10 minute video is a basic primer on the current living generations and how to understand their cycles.