You’ve probably had your grandparents give you the talk. How they “walked ten miles to school” or the “we didn’t have cars back then” and the “in my day we just did it” talk.
You roll your eyes and count the tiles on the ceiling. But did you know they might not have been kidding?
“We always did what we had to do,” says 96-year-old Elana Palmiero, grandmother of 16. “I’ve seen it all and frankly I don’t know what the kids today fuss about. We had it just as hard but we worked, played, got married and had kids.”
Palmiero was born in 1907 and became part of what is known as the Lost Generation (born 1883-1907). “I have seen two world wars, many civil wars, and a handful of policing actions,” she says.
“I have been poor, rich and then well off and the term lost should never have been applied to my generation.”
The Lost Generation grew up amidst urban blight, unregulated drug use, child “sweat shops,” and massive immigration.
They became independent and streetwise that lent them a “bad kid” reputation. After coming of age as a flaming youth they were alienated by World War One.
Their young-adult novelists, barnstormers, gangsters, sports stars and film celebrities gave the roar to the ’20s. Mae West. George Patton. Hemmingway.
The Great Depression hit them in midlife at the peak of their careers. The “buck stopped” with their truculent battlefield and horrors of a hot war-and then their frugal and straight-talking leaders of a new “cold” one.
As elders, they paid high tax rates to support their world-conquering juniors, while asking little for themselves.
This generation has faced over a century of hardships, but in the midst they succeeded in passing down their values and morals to the next cohort the Silent Generation.
The Silent Generation, named so because they did not have television, is a small cohort now in their seventies that rose out of the Great Depression and World War Two, a time when all looked bleak. In 1932, not less than 30 million people were out of work in all industrialized countries.
This depression came less than a dozen years after the First World War, which killed, directly or indirectly, 30 million people, destroyed $ 200 billion worth of property, capital, and raw materials, and by the tangled mess of debts, reparations, and tariffs that followed, it practically broke civilization.
By 1938, a Second World War was inevitable, creating a dismal outlook for the future of the world.
Against seemingly insurmountable odds, and faced with the hellish horrors of World War Two, the Silent Generation got high school diplomas, balking at the notion that illiteracy is mostly due to poverty, worked on government make-work programs, shoveled snow and ice rinks, and waited in long soup lines.
Further, the Silent Generation was the last generation not raised on television, rather entertainment involved human interaction, mostly within the scope of the immediate family, God, flag and the country.
After the depression and the Second World War, the Silent Generation could relish in the spoils of winning. This was a time of hope, happiness, and optimism for the future.
“After time the world was ripe for the picking,” says Rosalin Bourke.
Bourke, now 78, worked all her life for an insurance company and says workers back then found themselves holding the bat, and could leave one job in the morning and have another by afternoon. “We began to mass-produce everything and send it around the world.”
Then, in 1946 after World War Two, to 1964, there was a steep increase in the U.S. birthrate. Over 77 million people were born, accounting for nearly one-third of the US population, and called the Baby Boomers.
Since the late sixties, this uneven age distribution has had a multitude of social effects on educational systems, job markets, urban economics and more, including almost every aspect of contemporary life.
The Boomers thrived in a world handed to them; a world ready to change and accept new ideas.
The differences between the Silent Generation and the Boomers are indicated by its own set of experiences, social outlook, and economic opportunities.
The Silent Generation came of age during the great depression and Second World War, and did not have the benefits of security and a wide range of careers so precious to the Baby Boomers.
So what do we tell our nieces and nephews about this generation? Palmiero says “just do it.”
The approach of today’s youth seems to have accepted all of the past. Many of our youth today see the problem of economic, social and environment as one, or as “socio-environmental.”
Rather than flood the planet with goods and services far in excess of what we need or can afford, these harbingers of the future are seeking social equality, saving the environment by composting, consuming less and recycling, thinking globally and acting locally.
And they are doing it. The Teenager Innovative Group Entrepreneurs of Rothsay (TIGER), Manitoba, is just one example.
In 2000, a handful of teens started TIGER when they saw their town becoming a ghost town.
To find work, teenagers had to go to other towns, because even the local grocery store had closed down. Today, because some creative teenagers took charge, Rothsay’s grocery store is opened.
It’s also “in” to go to work for a nonprofit agency. College and high school students are volunteering at soup kitchens, shelters, tree-planting programs, youth centres and the like, more today than at any time since the ’60s, reported Heather McLoud, a thirty-something editor of Who Cares magazine targeted at Generation X, Generation Next, the Baby Busters, and the Millenium Generation.
“They’re [youth] getting involved at the local level, where results are more tangible and concrete,” says McLoud.
“It’s part of the movement away from turning to the government to solve our problems.”
Palmiero has earned the nickname “Hardy” from her family.
“We paid no mind to the difficulties of the world around us,” she says. “We worked with what we had at the time.”
That’s good advice.