A great generation

I was having a conversation with some coworkers over lunch about virtue.

That’s a funny word when you say it more than once. Virtue. Anyway.

We were talking about how it seems like the days of “virtue” were lost in the land of Mayberry. And perhaps unfairly so, were commenting on how much of our generation lacked the integrity of our grandparents’.

I quoted one of those quotes that you think you’ve heard someone say somewhere at some point. Something about how every generation tends to rebel against the one that raised them. And it made me think about how profoundly different the world is than the day my grandparents were born — since the black and white times of the “Greatest Generation.”

Tom Brokaw wrote the book that coined the phrase of this virtuous, “great” generation.

In it, Brokaw said:

Looking back, I can recall that the grown-ups all seemed to have a sense of purpose that was evident even to someone as young as four, five, or six. Whatever else was happening in our family or neighborhood, there was something greater connecting all of us, in large ways and small.

Indeed there was, and the scope of the national involvement was reflected in the numbers: by 1944, twelve million Americans were in uniform; war production represented 44 percent of the Gross National Product; there were almost nineteen million more workers than there had been five years earlier, and 35 percent of them were women. The nation was immersed in the war effort at every level.

The young Americans of this time constituted a generation birth-marked for greatness, a generation of Americans that would take its place in American history with the generations that had converted the North American wilderness into the United States and infused the new nation with self-determination embodied first in the Declaration of Independence and then in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

This sense of purpose — of “getting the job done” — of pulling yourself up from your bootstraps and helping your neighbor is quite a different world to my peer group, born mostly in the 1980’s.

We (on the cusp of “Generation X” [born 1960-1980] and Millineals [born 1980-2002] tend to be a privileged generation with an attitude of expectancy. We feel entitled to the things that our grandparents worked so hard to have.

And perhaps we’re even, as this article in the UK Telegraph states, smug. The author writes:

Professor Jean Twenge, head of psychology at San Diego University, and lead author of a report about young people’s self-confidence and views about the future, said: “Boomer parents are more likely than any group of parents before them to praise children – and maybe overpraise them.

This can foster great expectations or perhaps even smugness about one’s chances of reaching the stars at work and in family life.

Their narcissism could be a recipe for depression later when things don’t work out as well as they expected.”

So how did we go from sacrifice to smug in just a few decades? I’m no sociologist, but certainly wealth, media and technology have played some role. This summary from U.S.A Today helped me understand a few more “trends” that have led to differences between the generations and how we communicate:

Traditionalists (born 1922-1943)

The Great Depression and World War II were critical events shaping the mindset of the “Greatest Generation.” These workers place a high premium on formality and the top-down chain of command.

A traditionalist, for instance, is more likely to write a memo than shout across the room, and he might be offended by the more direct, immediate approach of Generation X.

Respect is also important. A study by Randstad in 2001 shows that respect is the traditionalists’ top psychological need.

Baby boomers (born 1943-1960)

“Boomers are people who work to live,” says Connie Fuller, co-author of Bridging the Boomer-Xer Gap. Growing up with 80 million peers has made this generation a highly competitive one, and boomers are generally willing to sacrifice for success.

Recognition is important to boomers, according to the Randstad study, and Raines says they favor a personable style of communication that aims to build rapport.

Like the traditionalists, baby boomers tend to favor a top-down approach and value respect. But they also can be credited with reshaping corporate culture with casual dress codes and flexible schedules.

Generation X (born 1960-1980)

A higher divorce rate combined with an increase in working mothers meant many Xers grew up as “latch-key kids,” frequently left to their own devices. They saw how much their baby boomer parents gave up for their careers; then they saw many of them laid off in the 1980s recession.

As a result, Xers tend to be skeptical, highly individual workers who value a work/life balance. Most would rather be rewarded with extra time off than a step up the corporate ladder. If they need to work extra hours, they want to know why.

Millenials (born 1980-2002)

“A lot of people are thinking that they’re just like Generation Xers, only younger — and they’re not,” Raines says. Unlike the Xers, millenials are highly collaborative and optimistic. They do, however, share Xers’ emphasis on work/life balance and comfort with technology.

They’ve been taught to “put feelings on the table,” Stillman says, and have had significant influence in how their families are run. These youngsters, for instance, make 74% of their families’ leisure decisions, according to a study by Stillman and his co-author, Lynne Lancaster.

It is rather fascinating to think about how culture affects our world view. Or maybe more importantly, how our world view affects culture.

And perhaps, as we raise our babies with the ideals of the people that sacrificed for our luxuries — they will be a generation just as great.


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