As I have aged through different decades of life, I have observed with increasing clarity the differences between the generations. As I near my fiftieth year, it has become apparent that being raised by people who were children of the Great Depression must have had a profound effect on me. My observation has only come to light as a result of seeing those younger than me and wondering how their attitudes and points of view were shaped by parents of subsequent generations.
My musings have crystalized lately in the form of a question: ‘when did mediocrity become acceptable?’
At most points in American history, our ancestors strove to be more than the previous generation and worked so that their children could do the same. During the pioneer days, people read books and memorized poetry. When they could, they attended plays and lyceums to better themselves. This was the age of the great orators like Daniel Webster, and later, William Jennings Bryan. They sought to influence, educate and motivate. When radio came onto the scene, the programming was designed to entertain and inform, but there was also a sense that the programming should ‘elevate’ the audience with performances of opera and orchestra.
You don’t have to look far to see that we are in a far different age. Reality TV and video games have become the norm. Entertainment no longer attempts to educate or elevate. We no longer expect our students to use proper grammar. Email and texting have nearly made correct spelling nearly as antiquated as studying Latin.
I have started a few conversations around this topic and have received answers that range from blaming corporate America for the “dumming down” of the work force, to blaming American preeminence after WWII for a sense of arrogant invincibility that has led to mediocrity. The two ideas have some areas of convergence that may be instructive. The industrial machine that led to our success in WWII, gave us an amazing surplus of wealth and talent in the 1950’s. The rise of the middle class and the ability for small business to succeed was unparalleled.
Perhaps this led the children of the greatest generation to have a sense of permanent ennui. After all, how could they ever achieve the level of greatness that their fathers had achieved? I remember my father talking about his older brothers, John and Russell, he said that there was something about the men who came back from WWII: there was a sense of them having a camaraderie and a ‘knowing’ that they could not share with anyone that hadn’t been a soldier. From my own childhood, I remember the sixties and the hippies and the Vietnam protests. I remember hearing a quote whereby one of the members of the older generation said of his son, “he is pulling himself ‘down’ by his own bootstraps.’”
While I could ponder the impact that the Cold War, Vietnam and Watergate, the nuclear arms race and other recent history has had on the mentality of today’s young adults, I think it is perhaps more intriguing to look the other direction and go further back.
If you were of the age group of the generation that led us through WWII, you would have been born in the 1920s. Your parents would have been born in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. Your grandparents would have been born in the 1880s.
Imagine being a child in the mid 1920s. There would still be men living who had fought in the Civil War. You would have had parents and grandparents who had their parents’ memories of life immediately after the War of Independence against England. There would still be a sense of the freedom that the grand experiment of our new democracy was offering.
If you were a child in the 1920s you would likely know people whose parents had fled Austria or Russia to escape conscription or who had left Ireland to escape starvation. States such as New Mexico and Arizona would have only recently become a part of the Union. Vast areas of the United States would have only been settled in your parents’ lifetimes. The Wright brothers’ first flight would still be a recent phenomenon and air travel a wonder of the age. Can you imagine the weight of expectation and discovery that would have thrilled, or terrified, you?
While you were still young, the crash of 1929, the Dust Bowl and the depression would have been pretty heavy to bear, but you would have had the examples of your parents and grandparents who had survived much worse and had come through. Death would not have been some distant fiend, held at bay by hospitals and mortuaries. You would have met death face to face and frequently: siblings would die in infancy, grandparents would pass away in the room next to yours, the flu epidemic would have killed countless cousins and neighbors and you would have seen men, perhaps an older brother, perish in the ‘War to End All Wars. The sense of despair would have been powerful, but so would the sense of hope.
These days we joke about difficulties being “character building.” But, when you look at the lessons we have learned through secondary experiences we receive from parents and those of their generation who have gone through hard times and triumphed through such overwhelming odds, we know character is no joke. What will the current generation of young adults say about their parents? We can only hope that this generation inherited enough of the wisdom humility and strength of our forebears to be able to build on it and pass some of it along.