The Greatest Generation: Why were they so great?

Published 12:35 pm Saturday, May 25, 2013

by Robert N. Holt

Tom Brokaw, retired NBC News anchor, coined the term “the greatest generation” in his famous book by the same name first published in 1998. Who were the members of this generation and why were they so great?

Scholars define the members of the greatest generation as Americans born between 1900 and 1924. The closer one was born to 1924, the more they fit the mold of this accomplished group. They experienced the highs of the “roaring twenties,” the lows of the Great Depression that began in 1929, and the ravages of World War II. They also experienced the economic prosperity of the 1950s.

The end of World War I began a period of prosperity in the U.S. that would fuel the roaring twenties. Manufacturing was growing exponentially with the auto, communications, and airline industries taking off due to the creative innovations of such Americans as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison & George Westinghouse, and the Wright Brothers. The U.S. economy was on a roll and expanding quickly.

The crash of the stock market in 1929 signaled the beginning of the Great Depression that would last until the beginning of WW II. Unemployment at 25 percent created unique and unparalleled challenges for the members of the greatest generation. By 1933 the economies of the other industrialized countries had crashed as well. President Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated that year and initiated legislation called the New Deal; a series of government programs designed to lower unemployment and jump start the economy. In 1935, the program that was to become Social Security was passed into law. The Fair Labor Standards Act limiting hours of work and establishing a minimum wage was enacted in 1938.

By the end of the 1930s Adolf Hitler had become chancellor of Germany and had formed an alliance with Italy and Japan to rule the world. Hitler had taken much of Europe; Russia and England anticipated they would be next on his list.

Japan’s vicious attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 signaled our entry into WWII. The U.S. declared war on Japan the next day and Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. several days later. England was pleased to have such a strong ally as the U.S. Russia, still building its military, teamed with the U.S. and England. WWII had begun in full force.

Members of the greatest generation responded. Young men enlisted in military service in droves and women of all ages took their place as factory workers and truck drivers. Of those that served in the military, approximately 419,000 did not return. Additionally, many civilians moved to Washington to assist with the war effort there. Manufacturing facilities were retooled to produce Jeeps, tanks, aircraft, and ordinance. Rationing of needed materials for the war effort was established, and there was no delaying or complaining. This generation had a strong sense of purpose – the war effort at every level and that there was no alternative but total and complete victory. This intense period lasted four to five years where men and women left their families, careers were placed on hold, and women did extraordinary tasks. The country as a whole banded together as never before to defeat those who would alter the American way of life.

This generation made sacrifices of the highest order. Brokaw says this was a “generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor.” They quietly returned to their families and resumed life as best as they could. They returned to jobs and college, married, and produced children defined now as the “baby boomer” generation.

After almost seventy years of reflection, history has recognized the enormous contributions and sacrifices of the greatest generation. Tom Hanks’ and Steven Spielberg’s 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan attempts to recreate the enormous struggles and sacrifices of this generation in war. Another such movie is Pearl Harbor produced in 2001.

What is it about this generation that allowed it to rise to the occasion and perform so admirably? I believe it was their sense of personal responsibility. Social Security was in its infancy, and this generation did not plan on receiving retirement benefits, thus they saved. They did not have the benefits of unemployment compensation, thus they saved. They did not have high income tax rates, thus they were able to purchase more goods and services, and yes, save more.

Today too many of us look to the government to take care of us through a vast system of “entitlements.” The greatest generation looked within themselves for security and took personal responsibility for it. Let’s learn from these wise people and take their advice.

Robert N. “Bob” Holt, a Franklin native, is a professor of business management and real estate at Southwestern Community College in Sylva, N.C. His email address is