In his book The Greatest Generation, journalist Tom Brokaw profiled the men and women who grew up in the United States during the Great Depression and then went on to fight and win World War II. Brokaw declared that those who suffered, sacrificed, and persevered during that stretch of time are unquestionably America’s Greatest Generation.
It’s often said that history is our best teacher. If honored and respected, history serves as a guide for decisions that impact the present and the future. So what can we learn from the Greatest Generation? What traits did they possess that make them stand out in history? What can we take from that time and translate into our own lives? To help answer those questions, or to at least start a conversation, here are 6 traits that distinguished the Greatest Generation.
- Personal Responsibility. We live in an age of blame. It’s never our fault, it’s someone or something else that’s to blame for our actions, mistakes, or failures. Such a lack of personal responsibility is not only destructive for personal growth, but also for the health of our nation. Conversely, the Greatest Generation viewed personal responsibility as an honor, something that was bestowed upon them, something to be grateful for, to cherish, and to respect. Great lessons of leadership always start with a deep sense of personal responsibility.
- Integrity. In the 1925 US Open, famed golfer Bobby Jones pulled a 1-iron out of his bag. As he set up to hit the ball out of the rough grass, huis ball moved ever so slightly, a motion that calls for a 1-stroke penalty. He was the only one who saw it—and yet he called the penalty on himself. That penalty eventually cost him the championship. When people tried to congratulate him on his sportsmanship, Jones said, “That’s like congratulating someone for not robbing a bank.” In that instant, Jones personified the saying, “character is what you do when no one else is looking.” The Greatest Generation is known for its integrity. People who value what is honest, true, noble, trustworthy, kind and right, all ahead of personal gain. When it’s firmly embedded in our foundation, integrity ceases to be optional but instead becomes a way of life.
- Humility. Humility and modesty aren’t exactly in style these days. The more flamboyant, provocative, and attention-grabbing, the better. No matter where you turn, we’re bombarded by braggadocios behavior. In the days of the Greatest Generation, dignity and modesty were expected. Society held itself to a higher standard, and humility was at the heart of it all. It was about self-sacrifice and what is best for family, community, and country. Don’t you think we could all benefit greatly by taking a cue from those before us and humbling our hearts accordingly?
- Work Ethic. The Greatest Generation viewed work as a means to survival. And it was! During the Great Depression, men and women worked a variety of jobs wherever they could find them and for whatever wages they paid. And later during World War II, work literally meant life or death. If Dad was off fighting the war, mom was working at a converted munitions factory, and the children were doing their part as well, all taking great pride in the work they were doing. Thankfully, we’re not engaged in a Great Depression or World War today. And in many professions, technology and other innovations have made our work easier and less burdensome. But those blessings have also spawned a culture of slothfulness, an attitude of selfishness, and many idle hands. Would our households have a stronger work ethic if all the money we earned from our respective trades was earmarked for family, community, and country, in that order?
- Financial Prudence. Today we live in a disposable culture. Everything is temporary, including our money. In the 30s and 40s, everything was saved. To be frugal was the discipline of the day. Today we’re a consumer-based economy. We fill our lives with one temporary gadget after another, and it all moves so fast there’s no need for a repair man anymore. Just go buy a new one. Unfortunately, that type of thinking has led to a great deal of personal financial stress, debt, and household instability. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from the people who saved everything, down to the final penny and the last green bean.
- Faithful Commitment. Does loyalty count? Or should we constantly be on the lookout for the next green pasture? Is a man’s word still as good as gold? The difference between the Greatest Generation and the generation of today, in many ways, comes down to those questions. To see a 50th wedding anniversary in 2017 is an anomaly, and not a normal milestone of a couple living their golden years. For a person to work at a job long enough to earn the distinction of a lifer is rare. And when is the last time you shook another man’s hand and truly believed his word was as good as gold?
It isn’t that our society isn’t generous, because we mostly are. We have achieved great things, have helped many, and have much to be proud of. But we’re also living in a very troubled time in history. Perhaps now is the time for us to reflect on the things that are truly important, the values we leave behind, and to learn from our history so we have a chance to be great today and even better tomorrow.