I have the most remarkable readers.  (Don’t blush: it’s true!)

One of you — from Toledo — won the national high school debate championship back in the day.  And then, after graduating — but long before managing the billion dollars he manages today — coached another team to win its national championship.  (So why a financial analyst now and not a super lawyer? Who’s to say.)  Of interest to me: after decades of preferring mutual funds to individual stocks, he’s broken his own rule to buy this one, on the London exchange.  It promises to deliver nicotine in a controlled way — better than current electronic cigarettes — so I have mixed feelings: will it help more people quit smoking real cigarettes than it addicts to nicotine?  “Could do,” as the Brits say.

Another of you, Jim Burt, wrote this heretofore unpublished essay years ago.  “The title gives away the subject matter,” Jim says, “but there’s a twist.  The top of the nonfiction bestseller list in 1942 was occupied by Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers, in which he excoriated the generation then reaching maturity as lacking in education, motivation, and self-discipline, devoted to self-indulgence, hot cars, and substance abuse.  [“Perhaps the most vitriolic attack ever launched on the American way of living — from politicians to professors to businessmen to Mom to sexual mores to religion — Generation of Vipers ranks with the works of De Tocqueville and Emerson in defining the American character and malaise.”]  The book sold like hotcakes.  The generation he was condemning, of course, was the one known to us today as ‘the Greatest Generation.’

The Greatest Generation
by Jim Burt

I’ve been listening this week to the audiobook version of The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw’s misty-eyed retrospective of the Depression kids who fought World War II and built the modern United States. It is often quite moving, both because it tells the stories of real heroes and because it reminds me of my parents, both of whom served in the Army in that war. Arguably, though, it begs the question: Why was this “The Greatest Generation”? I don’t want to take anything away from my parents’ generation, but it’s my conclusion that this was an outstanding group that was made, not born, great.

In every generation, as Shakespeare famously put it, “there are those who are born great, those who achieve greatness, and those who have greatness thrust upon them.” No generation in history ever had more greatness more forcefully thrust upon it than this one. What were the ingredients of that greatness?

As a group, they were forged in the Great Depression, annealed in poverty, and shaped on the anvil of hard work, ill health, and low expectations. Most, in a generation which after the war became the most educated in history, never expected to be able to go to college. Many were so ill-fed and ill cared for that 40% were rejected as unfit when conscription began in 1940. They were prepared for hardship in war by hardship in peace. But this didn’t make them great. At most, it made them malleable and uncomplaining, and perhaps adaptable.

To an extent hard for today’s young people to realize, they were inculturated with a respect for our political and religious institutions and leaders and a reverence for the symbols of those institutions, such as the Flag. As a group, they tended to be more deferential to gray hairs than any generation that has come of age since the 1960s, and were more accustomed to such conventions as answering with “Sir” and “Ma’am” to persons in authority.  And they were indoctrinated in a conventional morality which seems pretty archaic today, although even in their heyday it was characterized by a double standard that made its sexual ethics more moral in form than in practice. In some respects, these cultural and moral standards — which is how they were regarded in those days — were pretty awful, as in their support for racial segregation and widespread anti-semitism. But, even at their best, these characteristics did not make them great. At most, they made this generation easier to lead and to motivate.

The “Greatest Generation” was molded in its most important aspects by factors entirely separate from chest-thumping patriotism, “old-fashioned morality,” or a hard-scrabble youth. This was a generation that was called to great responsibility in great numbers at an age that leaves us gasping with incredulity today, at teen-aged bomber pilots, nurses, and company commanders. Whether serving with combat troops or on the home front, these young people, in their teens and twenties (a fact that even the most realistic war movies tend to disguise) were called by necessity to perform to the limit of their capabilities. They were given rigorous training and experience in highly technical and demanding skills, achieving levels of expertise formerly, and since, found only in persons of middle age. They knew that lives depended on their doing their utmost, and this challenge was accompanied by another important factor, the knowledge that they served a great and noble cause, a knowledge and experience with enduring effect.

These were the factors that made the “Greatest Generation” what it was: Challenge, intensive training and experience, and identification with a noble cause. With such a start at such an age, it should hardly be surprising that they continued to serve with distinction after the immediate stimulus of war was behind them.

These factors were thrust upon more members of that generation, more quickly and intensively, at an earlier age, than on any generation before or since. But they are factors that are available to all of us. In business, academe, and the military, it is the “challenge assignments” that forge leaders. The early embrace of training and experience “jump starts” anyone in any profession or trade, allowing one’s genuinely productive years to begin much earlier. There are noble causes, whether through our religious institutions or public service, awaiting us in plenitude, regardless of our age and condition of life.

Just as the “Greatest Generation” was made, not born, each of us has the capacity to achieve greatness. The difference is that greatness is less likely to be “thrust upon” us. We have to seize it, to make it. Each of us is called to live to our fullest potential at every moment. The people we admire most are those who have most successfully answered that call.  Listen for it.


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