Tom Brokaw wrote a book entitled “The Greatest Generation.” I never read it but I’m pretty sure I know what he wrote about because I grew up with parents who also sung the praises of this greatest generation. Like Brokaw my parents belonged to the baby boomers. They always talked about how great their parents were and sort of implied how ungrateful my generation was. They told me or implied that things were better in the past because they and their parents lived in simpler, more virtuous times. The United States was really united back then, also more patriotic and religious. We had the strongest economy, best education and the most powerful military. My parents both went to college, found professional jobs, bought a house, my mother became a house wife and my father retired in his 60s with a pension.
My earliest memories come from the 1970s when things seemed to be in decay. Jimmy Carter was the President. Pollution was horrible. The military seemed weak after Vietnam. Faith in the government had been undermined by Nixon. There were gas shortages and hostage crisis. Crime was up. The purity was somehow gone and had been replaced by malaise, irony and sarcasm. The golden age was clearly over. Ronald Reagan seemed to lift the spirit of the country but something told me that it was a paler, less authentic reflection of the spirit felt during the time of the greatest generation. The country longed to return to that time and pretended it had somehow returned but everyone really knew it wasn’t quite the same.
What bothers me about the concept of the “greatest generation” is that it implies all other generations are not as great. It implies the way to pay tribute to that generation is to feel like our generation would not have persevered and stepped up to fight like the greatest one did. It also implies that the US as a country was better because of the virtue of the generation that lived at that time. They fought the war, they joined civic organizations, they were patriotic. As such when a member of my generation doesn’t pull his own weight it not only reveals him to be a weaker, flawed person than the gods of the greatest generation, he is also contributing to the downfall of our civilization.
The concept of the greatest generation implies that my generation is somehow responsible for American decline because we cannot measure up to that generation. It is a form of original sin. The concept of the greatest generation implies that our generation missed out on something better and that we didn’t deserve it anyway because we just aren’t as good as they were. The concept of the greatest generation implies also that it is our duty to feel ashamed of ourselves to atone for this.
I grew up wishing I lived during World War II when people were patriotic and united. I wished I had destiny handed to me like that generation who were drafted into the military. I felt lost and unnecessary all my life and told that I did not deserve what I had. When I graduated college in 1993 I could not find a job. I would have given anything to be told I was needed and given a destiny.
Back then everyone in the street wore a suit. Now, not even the President wears a tie at times. It feels like the standards are slipping but I know would have been one of the ones to maintain the standards and yet was never given an opportunity to do so and then blamed for not maintaining the standards in the end. Every organization I have belonged to was great once and decayed during my lifetime. The US is just one example of this for reasons I have discussed. The Catholic Church is another example. The soulless folk masses I attend as a kid seemed half assed in comparison to the rigid, solemn splendor of the Latin Mass my parents attended when they were kids. My Boy Scout troop disbanded while I was a member. The fraternity I joined in college was the strongest on campus and then decayed when a kid fell off the roof during a post initiation party. After that most members stopped contributing. I (for some reason) felt compelled to keep it going.
This myth of the greatest generation was devised by the baby boomer generation. I imagine the greatest generation came home from the war where they witnessed horrors. Perhaps they suffered from PTSD. They came back to live in a society that did not experience the direct assault of the war in that the cities and infrastructure were not destroyed. The standard of living in the US at the time was far superior to devastated Europe. The greatest generation saw their soft kids growing up like this and shamed them because they could not deal with it. Clean your plate – there’s starving kids in Europe! So the baby boomers in turn grew up with a great deal of shame. And what does a person who feels shame do? He dumps it on to someone weaker than him. This happened to be the children of the baby boomers, my generation that grew up in the 1970s.
There’s the sense that I’ve been carrying the weight of civilization on my shoulders. That things were better back then because people are more selfish and less disciplined now. So every act of selfishness now is further undermining civilization. When I’m bad I’m not just undermining myself, I’m undermining civilization. But is that any way to live a life? I did not decide when to be born and it’s not my fault that times have changed. I’ve wasted enough time feeling ashamed for being given a higher standard of living than the Baby Boomers and yet having less career opportunity than they did. Up yours Tom Brokaw. It’s time to move forward put the myths of those two generations to bed.