Name: G.I. Generation
Birth years: 1901-1924
Just prior to the birth of the G.I. Generation, muckraking reporters exposed the neglect of children in big city tenements and the exploitation of child labor. Legislation was passed to protect children. A trend toward developing city parks and playgrounds emerged in cities across the nation to give children and families a safe place for recreation. The sharpest rise ever in school enrollment occurred during this generation' s chilhood. Emblematic of this generation’s penchant for outer-directed teamwork was the formation of the Boy Scouts (1910) and the Girl Scouts (1912). This was a generation schooled in, and motivated by, civic values.
Much of the attention G.I. children received was motivated by a perceived decline cultural values and institutions. There was fear of the “Red Threat” of Communism after World War I that led to a number of Supreme Court cases addressing civil liberties. Unions and labor unrest were growing. Prohibition was passed in 1919 to restrict the consumption of alcohol only to gave rise to organized crime. The emergence of flappers, speakeasies and Jazz were seen as new lows in American culture. Jim Crow laws were passed across the nation and the Ku Klux Klan reached its zenith in the 1920s as they marched in Washington, D.C., with the support and admiration of many. The Warren Harding administration of the early 1920’s was marked by scandal. Social inequality was high. Meanwhile, the Modernist vs Fundamentalist debate divided churches across the nation.
As the 1920s came to a close, farm regions of the country were already in an economic depression. When the stock market crashed in 1929, a fourth turning started. The nation was now in crisis. Government and economic institutions seemed paralyzed. Bank closings ensued. Riots and civil unrest emerged. Communists, socialists, and labor organizations began to get a hearing from those outraged at the social inequalities. Hyperbolic discourse in the public square reached a fever pitch as competing factions, often lead by Missionary “Prophet” Generation (born 1860-1882) leaders, battled to make their prophetic visions for America prevail.
To a generation raised on teamwork and cooperation, it seemed as if the nation were about to disintegrate. Leaders and institutions appeared to be utterly dysfunctional. Thus, when Franklin Roosevelt issued the call to rebuild the nation, the G.I. Generation joined the various “New Deal” initiatives to save the civic fabric of the nation.
As the world economic crisis persisted through the 1930s, the war clouds formed in Germany and in East Asia. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the conflicted state of affairs subsided in the US. Under the visionary guidance of Missionary “Prophet” Generation leadership (ex. Franklin Roosevelt, George Marshall, and Douglas MacArthur) and the innovative pragmatic leadership of Lost “Nomad” Generation (born 1883-1900) leaders (ex. Dwight Eisenhower, Chester Nimitz, and Omar Bradley), the G.I. Generation exhibited their “can-do” teamwork traits to their fullest. Whether as a G.I. storming the beaches of Normandy or being “Rosie the Riveter” assembling war material, the G.I. Generation overcame great odds through their submission of personal desires to the civic good. Strauss and Howe named the them “G.I.” partly because of their victory in WWII but also because G.I. implies nameless community effort.
Emboldened by wartime victory, the G.I. generation entered a first turning with high aspirations. They set to work building business, civic, and government institutions that ran like machines. Bigger was almost always better. Through technology and scientific expertise, anything could be accomplished from raising children (enter Dr. Spock) to putting a man on the moon. G.I.s were determined for their children to be the best and brightest of any generation.
As the Missionary Generation began to pass from the scene, Lost “Nomad” Generation leaders assumed the reigns of power. The pragmatic leadership of Lost presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower was too uninspired for the rising ambitious generation. The nation elected G.I John Kennedy president, the youngest candidate ever to be elected to office. Kennedy had his New Frontier. He challenged America to put a man on the moon. Johnson followed with the Great Society and a War on Poverty as well as a real war in Southeast Asia. Though of a different party, Nixon pursued similar strategies.
A second turning began about 1964 and by the late 1960s it was becoming clear that the G.I.s had overreached and underestimated the challenges they faced. They put a man on the moon and efforts at advancing civil rights were realized (although the later was often through the strategic prophetic witness of people like Dr. Martin Luther King) but whipping poverty and defeating communists Vietnam style revealed a significant lack of appreciation for complexities. The economy began to sputter in the 1970s and stagflation exposed just how powerless presidents like Nixon, Ford and Carter were at addressing economic difficulties.
On top of this, the generations born since 1924 and especially those born sense 1942, began to openly question the agendas and values of the G.I. Generation starting in the 1960s. They perceived the G.I.s to as cold and mechanical, lacking a human touch in all they created. The G.I.s were taken aback by this rebellion against the grand world they had created and were often puzzled and angered by the ungrateful critiques of their leadership. They perceived the new consciousness as a direct threat to the world they had worked so hard to create.
G.I.s began to hand the reigns of power over to succeeding generations by the end of the 1970s but even after 1980 the presidency was held for twelve years by G.I.s Reagan and Bush, Sr. Compared against Silent "Artist" Generation (born 1925-1942) leaders, the G.I.s somehow seemed to command more respect. In fact, G.I. Generation members held the presidency for 32 years from 1961 until 1993, longer than any other generation in history.
The G.I. Generation was almost completely in to their retirement years at the beginning of the third turning in 1984, they were the ones who faithfully held together any number of civic organizations. As they have faded so has the health of many civic institutions. Because of the G.I. Bill for World War II veterans, social security, and a host of other government programs, the G.I. Generation is the most prosperous generation of seniors in history. They have often used that wealth to build gated communities and devised ways to seclude themselves from what the perceived to be a decaying culture. The youngest G.I.s are now over eighty years old and are quickly fading from view.
The G.I. generation was born in era of civic unraveling. Much was expected of them by their elders and much was delivered. Through dogged determination, self-sacrifice, teamwork they survived the Great Depression and won World War II. In Post-war era, they built some the most impressive institutions in the history of humankind but they soon overreached in their civic ambitions. For a generation unaccustomed to failure it was bitter pill to swallow. They tended to view the rebellious response to their agenda by later generations as the primary source of the dysfunctions in our culture. When they are heard from any more it is often a disillusioned voice about a post-war dream that has been lost.
Curiously, the generation of parents that began raising children in the early 1980s looked around and saw the anti-social, destructive behavior of Generation X teenagers. They began to focus once again on children, becoming more protective. They sought to instill the virtues of teamwork, community, and civic virtue. In other words, they were creating a new “Hero” generation called the Millennial Generation, born 1981 to about 2000.
(Tom Brokaw wrote a book a few years ago about this generation call the Greatest Generation.)
Sampling of the G.I. Generation
Presidents: John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush.
Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) Jazz Musician
Walt Disney (1901-1966) Cinema Animation Empire
Clark Gable (1901-1960) Actor
Roy Wilkins (1901-1981) Director of the NAACP 1955-1977
Langston Hughes (1902-1967) Poet, Writer, Author
Ray Kroc (1902-1984) McDonald’s Founder
Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) Composer
Carl Rogers (1902-1987) Psychotherapist
John Steinbeck (1902-1968) Novelist
Bing Crosby (1903-1977) Singer, Actor
Clare Booth Luce (1903-1987) War Correspondent, Playwright
Benjamin Spock (1903-1998) Pediatrician
Lawrence Welk (1903-1992) Band Leader
Ralph Bunche (1904-1971) Under Sec. to UN, First Black to Win Nobel Peace Prize
Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) Physicist, Director of the Manhattan Project
B. F. Skinner (1904-1989) Psychologist
Howard Hughes (1905-1976) Industrialist, Aviator
Ayn Rand (1905-1982) Writer
Curtis LeMay (1906-1990) Air Force General
Walter Ruether (1907-1970) Labor Leader, UAW
John Wayne (1907-1979) Actor
Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) US Supreme Court Justice (1967-1993)
Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) Senator
James Stewart (1908-1997) Actor
Milton Berle (1909-2002) Comedian
Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) Broadcast Correspondent
Richard Wright (1908-1960) Novelist
Barry Goldwater (1909-1998) Senator, Presidential Candidate
Lucille Ball (1911-1989) Comedienne
Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) Playwright
Milton Friedman (1912- ) Economist
Tip O’Neill (1912-1994) Congressman, Speaker of the House
Rosa Parks (1913-2005) Civil Rights Activist
Joe DiMaggio (1914- ) Baseball Player
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) Monk, Writer
Francis Crick (1914-2004) Bio-Physicist, Nobel Prize Winner
Frank Sinatra (1915-1998) Singer, Actor
Walter Cronkite (1916- ) News Anchor
Robert McNamara (1916- ) Defense Secretary, World Bank Head
Katherine Graham (1917-2001) Washington Post Publisher
Katherine Hepburn (1917- ) Actress
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) Composer
Oral Roberts (1918- ) Preacher/Evangelist
George Wallace (1918-1998) Segregationist Gov. of Alabama, Presidential Candidate
Sam Walton (1918-1992) Founder of Wal-Mart
Billy Graham (1918- ) Evangelist
Paul Harvey (1918- ) News Commentator
Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) First Black Major League Baseball Player
John Glenn (1921- ) Astronaut, Senator
Donna Reed (1921-1986) Actress
Judy Garland (1922-1969) Singer, Actress
Norman Lear (1922- ) TV Producer
Charlton Heston (1923- ) Actor
Henry Kissinger (1923- ) Sec. of State, National Security Advisor
James Baldwin (1924-1987) Author Playwright
Marlon Brando (1924-2004) Actor
Lee Iacocca (1924- ) Auto Executive
Abigail Van Buren (1924- ) Advice Columnist