In over seven thousand years of documented civilizations, only one generation truly stands out as the single best time to be alive.
This generation lived during the greatest increase in standard of living in their lifetime.
Historians look at single moments in history for changing. Biographers look at how individuals have changed the course of history in their lifetime. Anthropologists look over longer time spans at how civilizations evolved and impacted future.
Yet, I think they are all missing out on an entire piece of the puzzle.
They don’t (or haven’t yet) made the argument that isolates what is accomplished in a generation.
We often make mention of generations to indicate age ranges or a specific stereotype.
Baby Boomers are working longer into retirement but don’t plan on leaving any money for their heirs. Gen Xers are hard working and will end up bearing much of the brunt of the looming financial collapse. Gen Yers are entitled but think outside of the box. We’re relying on them to create the solutions to tomorrow’s problems.
The Greatest Generation doesn’t have a name. Tom Brokaw was the only person to argue the greatness of this generation.
They have seen the depths of war and poverty, yet more than 15% of them have risen to become millionaires. During their lifetime, the average lifespan has increased from 54 years to 79 years.
Who are we talking about?
You likely guessed by now, that I’m talking about the generation of individuals born between 1890-1920.
Here’s just a look at what they’ve seen in their lifetime.
- 1880-1910: Second Industrial Revolution
- 1911: World War I
- 1920s: Roaring 20s
- 1930s: Great Depression
- 1939-45: World War II
- Invention of radio, cars, television, planes, telephone
- Major advances in medical research
- Average wages increases of $432 a year (~$11,600 in today’s dollars) to $45,000 in 2013
- Globalization of economies and companies
- Invention and adoption of the Internet
Think for a moment about any conversation you had with someone from the Greatest Generation. They likely told you of their childhood. No air conditioners, no television, and really…not too many rules.
During this generation, there are plenty of individuals worthy of detailed biographies. War heroes, innovators, and entrepreneurs all ignited what became the greatest increase in standard of living measured by income, comfort, and stability.
But it’s time to recognize the generation as a whole.
Individually, each was focused on enabling this generation to progress.
Rather than panning for gold, workers moved to where the jobs were. Entrepreneurs found gaps in the marketplace. Companies offered secure jobs. Politicians mostly stayed out of the way.
Impacted by the poverty they started with and the disruptions they had seen, everyone saved.
The Greatest Generation is transferring over $5 trillion of dollars of wealth to their heirs.
But notice one trend of what happened in their lifetimes.
Almost every disruption early in their lives was negative. Depression. War. They started in a poor environment that required hard skills and adaptability. Resilience was in their blood. It was instinct. They had to be ready for disruption and have the skills and savings to be able to come out on top.
As they grew older, disruptions became more positive. Innovations continued to enhance the standard of living. The Greatest Generation had worked hard and saved to afford these enhancements.
They saw increased wages and technology kept making innovations more affordable.
But they always knew where they began. Flexible and able to survive on their own. As time went by, these increases in standard of living became the norm. Children (the baby boomers) and grandchildren (Gen X) were always protected from their humble beginnings.
The Greatest Generation were avid savers and their backstop always provided a new normal in how Americans lived their lives.
Unfortunately, we’ve hit a plateau in these positive disruptions. In the past dozen years, we’ve only seen three major stock market crashes, a shift in warfare to random terrorism and endless unclaimed wars in the Middle East.
But there’s a significant difference in what we face today and what the Greatest Generation faced.
Before we continue to Part II where we’ll discuss the main difference…
What are your memories of this generation? Do you think they were resilient? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.
*Image from Minnesota Historical Society (mnhs.org)