What Made the Greatest Generation Great?

As our world gets smaller and yet more complicated, meaner and yet more civilized, more interconnected and yet more divided, many look back to the 1950s as a golden time of American greatness, when we knew who we were, who the bad guys were, and who our neighbors were. The 50s were a time when America exploded in ingenuity, productivity, international importance, and wealth. But what made the people of yesteryear different from us?

The first factor that formed the Greatest Generation was the Great Depression. Uncertainty, dread, and a hard-won existence steeled the skins and spirits of these people. They appreciate a job, benefits, and security not as something that government ensures, but as something that is won and held. They know the value of family and are more forgiving of their foibles because they knew that family, no matter how difficult, may be the only thing between you and the street. They knew the viciousness of debt and the lifeline that is savings.

Today we have little in common with those who suffered through the Great Depression. With (still) easy credit, unemployment below 5%, and governmental safety nets (albeit incomplete), we live life on the very edge, never knowing how close we are to ruin if the economy turned as it did in the 30s. We no longer need family, so we make less effort to get along. Our retirement and emergency savings is Social Security (somebody will fix it, right?), and besides, we’ve pretty much tamed the economy now—it’ll do what it’s told these days.

The tragedy that helped bounce the U.S. out of the Depression was World War II. My generation cannot comprehend the magnitude of World War II. We simply cannot fathom it. America drew several lessons from WWII. The biggest was the cost (not the price) of life. As millions of Americans saw friends and foes alike maimed and killed, the horror of war and the preciousness of life became a very stark image in their minds.

In contrast today’s Predators (unmanned aircraft) are flown by remote control from Nevada. The wars are fought by professional soldiers, and by so few that the horror of killing and watching die in combat is statistically non-existent. Violent death is the realm of Hollywood, video games, gangs, natural disasters, and lands far away. It’s simply not real to most of us.

Another result of WWII was a better understanding of our world. Because millions of service personnel and even more civilian support personnel went overseas, I believe they had a greater appreciation of the humanity in other places. For too many of us, people from other countries are just more characters on a TV screen with funny accents (or worse, illegal aliens). I like to think (I may be wrong) that returning GIs had a greater understanding of the brotherhood of man—ironic in a day when we can talk via internet with people from nearly any country in the world.

Possibly the biggest effect of WWII on America was the result of the GI Bill, which allowed ten million returning GIs to go to college on Uncle Sam’s dime. Although many in the country thought it was crazy and might bankrupt the country, the obligation felt to those who had served won out—and it was the greatest economic boon to the country in the 20th century. These were the men who created and made great the American economic juggernaut that we now take for granted. The investment paid for itself many, many times over.

Today, our returning soldiers get educational assistance, but nowhere on the scale of the GI Bill—they don’t even get full tuition. In addition, they are given the run-around in trying to apply for and receive disability benefits, etc. The country has let it known that our appreciation goes only as far as magnetic ribbons on our cars and little flag lapel pins. Aside from the injustice done the soldiers, the nation as a whole is not getting the higher education that made it great, and that will be required to sustain it. Tuition costs are rising much faster than inflation (about 30% from at BYU from ’02-‘08), each year eliminating a thin sliver of people who would otherwise go to college and add more to the economic engine of the nation. The haves are becoming fewer as the have-nots are priced out of a college degree. This, of course, reduces the size of the middle class and makes the rungs farther apart in the ladder of upward mobility. Politicians keep talking about how our economy needs to evolve from an industrial society to an innovation society, but they don’t make college possible for enough people to achieve the goal.

So what is to be done?
1) Plan for our economy to stall and fail occasionally—while doing all we can to avoid it. This means saving money, getting an education, avoiding debt, and keeping family close.
2) Somehow instill in our young ones the brutality, finality, and horror of war and unnecessary death. We must all realize that every person on Earth is a son or daughter of God, and that he doesn’t hate any of us. If we want to be like him, this is a good place to start.
3) Provide for our families and our country the opportunity for higher education. I hate my student loans (and much of it was unnecessary—I could have worked more), but I love my degrees and the doors they have opened for me.
4) Get more in touch with our history and the Greatest Generation. They made 20th Century America what it is—they may have some good advice on how to handle the 21st also.

1 Comment

Mike W. says:


Great post. Your solutions are on point. I have a couple of additional observations.

Recently in a church meeting, the speaker spoke to the lack of “hardiness” among our youth. They easily run from difficulty and seem to hid from discomfort. The question is: Why?

It seems that adults in the 40-50’s had yet to be influenced by the soul-crushing philosophy of secular humanism. They still had faith in the goodness of human beings, even when they were faced with great evil. In our day we are convinced of the evil of human beings even when faced with their goodness.

I’ll write more later

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