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The Greatest Generation


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.

Major Disruptions

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 (

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  • Jackie Minchew

    There is a certain validity to what you write. But a couple of salient omisssions come to mind. First, it was the parents of your “Greatest Generation”, mostly immigrants, who built great fortunes on the backs of under-payed and over-worked men, women and children, largely immigrants themselves. They established the family names that came to represent great wealth – Rockefeller, Kennedy and others. They did so by utilizing practices that were either illegal at the time or that became illegal because they were immoral and unjust. Their greed and profligacy, as well as that of their offspring, led the nation into the great depression which defined the generation to follow.

    Secondly, the achievements of the “Greatest Generation” were made possible, in large part, by the availablity of cheap and plentiful fossil fuel energy, unlike anything the world had previously seen. Resiliency is much easier when the tools of adaptation are so readily at hand.

    Finally, it was largely the “Greatest Generation” that was at the helm in the 70s, 80s and 90s when we, as a species, missed the dual signals of peaking fossil fuel supples and rising CO2 accumulations in the atmosphere. It is their descendants, including you and me, who continue the legacy of greed and profligacy into the present century.

    I do not mean to denigrate your piece, only to point out significant omissions.

  • James Meldrum

    Great article.

    There’s many Gen Yers who see themselves as the new Great Generation. Time will tell if they’re right.

  • I am 65. My family sharecropped. I picked cotton in the freezing cold and chopped cotton for 10 hours in 100+ weather for 20 cents an hour. An adult made 40 cents an hour. I know about this era and the people and the times were neither greater nor worse than the generations today. The difference lies primarily in one major variable – the media.

    The lens with which we observed our own lives, and observed others was not as high def as it is today. And time makes our vision of that past era a little more dull, not so sharp, sort of a retouched portrayal of the truth. But today, we live in a high def world. We immediately focus on everything, on every fault, on every minor mishap. We have 24/7 commentary television that creates news when it doesn’t exist, and radio programs that do nothing but find fault with the other side – regardless of what that “other side” is saying or doing. Can you imagine if we had 24/7 Fox, MSNBC or CNN when Eisenhower was trying to build the interstate, or when Kennedy was trying to put a man on the moon, or when Roosevelt was trying to build a secure economy through social security – the single greatest stabilize or our culture today – the ballast to a ship that would long ago have capsized had it not been for Roosevelt’s efforts.

    Today, the same networks that brought us great programming, bring us faux reality shows that pit human against human, pinpointing the use of unethical methods to gain the upper hand. We have shows that, instead of recognizing a life of contribution to the common, recognize a life of greed and opulence obtained through the unwilling sacrifices of thousands.

    The only reason we had a “Great Generation” is because they are in the past and MSNBC, Fox, and CNN along with countless radio talk shows, cannot increase their ratings by degrading them.

  • Arguably the Baby Boom generation represented the greatest single _potential_ in history. It was the responsibility of Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation” to rear this generation.

    Who is responsible for its abject failure to pass on whatever strengths are lauded by the likes of Brokaw?

  • CC

    It’s not necessary at all to decide which generation was the greatest… they all had greatness as well as madness. Myself I’d like to think that many of the generations that lived before the whites showed up were the greatest. They survived splendidly for thousands of years and in the toughest of conditions; how’s that for resilience?
    But we have to deal with today’s reality, which is pretty grim. We have to be able to distinguish wise from foolish, cruel for careful, and supportive from destructive. We better make sure we are the greatest generation, because of the challenges we have to address. Then, perhaps, the next generation can live peacefully and healthy, and thank us for that.
    Really all we have to do is stop competing in smartness, but instead just look at the facts, and deal with them in cooperative wisdom.

  • Auntiegrav

    The business of America is Business. If you judge by that, then yes, you can say that Brokaw’s title of “The Greatest Generation” is true.
    But to many of us as children of that generation, they and their offspring were and are just a bunch of goddamned bullies.

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