The G.I. Generation and the "Triumph of the Squares" (Part 2 of 7)

July 30, 2014 | By Neil Howe

This editorial originally appeared in Forbes.

This is part two of a seven-part series examining the rising (or falling) living standards of successive U.S. generations. Read part one here.

The G.I. Generation (born 1901-24)—also dubbed the “Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokaw—today comprises some four million Americans mostly in their 90s. They can be roughly defined as Americans who were born just too late to serve in World War I, but early enough to experience the Great Depression or the climax of World War II as they came of age. John Kennedy, their first President, defined them as “born in this century.” And indeed, their collective life story virtually coincides with the “American Century” of unprecedented global power, technological progress, and rising living standards.

Especially as they grew older, the typical G.I. adult enjoyed a huge jump in real family income over the previous (“Lost”) generation at the same age. And they knew it. One of their economists (Simon Kuznets) invented the term “GNP” to measure this affluence, and another (John Galbraith) invented the term “Affluent Society” in the 1950s to describe it. Yet few G.I.s equated rising material production with the mere sating of individual appetites, but rather as a means to build a more secure “free world” in which the “common man” (another phrase they popularized) would be vastly better fed, housed, educated, leisured, and insured than ever before. At the peak of their power, in the mid-1960s, they largely succeeded. In the decades since, arguably, we struggle to register any improvement on some of these metrics. Like putting a man on the moon, we look back and wonder just how they did it.

We all know about the gigantic civic investments the G.I.s made in America’s future, resulting in much of the global order and prosperity the world enjoys today.  But hardly anyone asks who invested in them to make them turn out that way.

The story starts back in their childhood, when little G.I.s were fussed over by protective parents determined to raise up kids as good as the Lost Generation had been bad.  Much of this was the focus of the Progressive Movement. Youth clubs, vitamins, pasteurized milk, laws to keep kids in school and out of the labor force—even Prohibition—were all efforts to keep these kids away from the danger and decadence of older Americans.

These G.I.s responded by coming of age as the straight-arrow achievers that adults had been hoping for. By the mid-1920s on college campuses, cynicism and selfishness were out; optimism and cooperation were in.  In the years that followed, G.I.s became the CCC dam-builders and tree-planters, the heroes of Iwo Jima and D-Day—in fact, the most uniformed generation per capita in American history.

Later, after the crisis was over, G.I.s just kept on building: interstates, suburbs, missiles, miracle vaccines, trips to the moon, and the Great Society. Eventually, their “best and brightest” hubris about guns and butter, beating benchmarks, and “growthsmanship” made them a target for younger generations. Many of the G.I.’s own Boomer kids, raised during the rising tide of their success, found their parents implacable and unfeeling, piling block on block with no moral purpose. As G.I.s entered elderhood in the late 1960s, many chose to separate themselves from their children and congregate in vast age-segregated desert communities with names like “Leisure World” and “Sun City” rather than endure their celebration of selfishness—what G.I.s have always considered hateful to their life-mission to homogenize and clean up the world.

Now when you look at the entire G.I. life story, you see a lot that explains their collective leap in living standards.

For starters, they were a generation of achievers. They represented the single biggest gain in educational attainment in U.S. history—from 10% of their first cohorts getting high school diplomas to 50% of their last-born cohorts. After the war, thanks to the G.I. bill, they also became the first generation whose middle class could enter college in large numbers. G.I.s eventually won over 100 Nobel Prizes, accounting for the majority of all Nobels ever awarded to Americans.

Real Median Family Income by Cohort: GI Generation
Real Median Family Income by Cohort: GI Generation

They believed strongly in community. G.I.s were joiners who always opted to be good citizens. In their youth, they voted overwhelmingly for the New Deal and became America’s biggest-ever union generation. They voted for generous subsidies that helped push up homeownership rates: The share of owner-occupied homes rose from 46% in the 1920s to 62% by the mid-1960s—about where it is today. They also backed minimum wage laws and high marginal tax rates. Income equality grew on their watch, which hugely boosted the growth in the “middle-class” median. They also greatly expanded the use of employer-sponsored pension plans. The result? By midlife, as the above graph illustrates, the last-born G.I. cohort (here 1915-24) had a median income roughly double that of the first born-cohort (1895-1904).

They brought these attitudes with them into elderhood. Called “junior citizens” in their youth, G.I.s became known as “senior citizens” when they began retiring in the mid-1960s and gave birth to a new label for that phase of life. Membership in elder organizations—the most prominent being AARP—grew sixtyfold through the late 1970s. The G.I. reputation for civic desert also triggered a huge expansion in senior entitlements over the next decade. This gave a further boost to their income late in life.

Today, most of this generation has passed on. But they live on vividly in the public imagination of younger generations as the one that everyone counted on to team up and push forward. Their American Dream is perhaps best captured by this quote from The Best Years of Our Lives: “A good job, a mild future, and a little house big enough for me and my wife.” Many of their civic efforts were devoted to making that vision possible for all Americans—and they’ve enjoyed the fruits of those investments ever since.

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