The other day my partner and I were cleaning out our basement in a fit of much needed spring-cleaning. It was like a treasure hunt; we found photos we forgot existed and mementos from trips long since passed. We also found some items belonging to our grandfathers, both of whom served in Europe during World War II. I noticed a small, brown book in the corner of a box, blew off the dust and carefully opened it to the title page. RESTRICTED: War Department – Technical Manual “French Phrase Book,” February 15, 1943. It was a phrasebook given to all GIs in both Europe and North Africa, and contains some pretty poignant language translations like: “What tank obstacles are there?” and “Is the road embanked?” Reading through that book, reflecting on my both my grandparents’ and parents’ generations made me think about me and my life and whether or not my generation is truly following in their footsteps.
I’m very proud of my grandfather. He was just a simple enlisted man in the army during the Second World War. He wasn’t decorated and he wasn’t an officer. Instead he was an able and hard working soldier, liberating villages across Europe as the Army beat back the Nazis. He lost his hearing in his right ear during the war and carried emotional scars that stayed with him until the day he died. He never spoke about the war, but I knew it was always with him. One day when I was 10 or 11, he surprised me by pulling out a large trunk from the barn and showing me his World War II memorabilia. Flags, pins, photos and letters where his memories of the war. Dark memories, but ones that were not uncommon amongst returning GIs. Instead of letting their experience looking into the very face of evil itself mar their futures though, they gained strength from their trials and changed the world.
What is now dubbed The Greatest Generation created a nation that went on to be the greatest superpower the world has ever known. They also created a country that was wealthy and comfortable, paving the way for their children to succeed. And succeed they did. The Baby Boomers went on to further define the world in every way conceivable, through politics, technology and social responsibility. They gave us the laptop and cellphone, The Human Rights Campaign and the Equal Rights Amendment. I’m the child of this expectant generation. My parents were raised being taught that determination and hard work will always lead to success and happiness, just as their parents taught them. And they were right, to a certain degree, but I wonder about the extent to which my generation, the sometimes grungy Generation X has bastardized this concept.
I did what I was told. I went to college, grad school and then got a good job. My mother wasn’t happy that I didn’t go to work for the Federal government. In her mind that was the safest route to a comfortable future, which is mostly right. But what I did last year would have really annoyed her. I left my job, or better said my job left me and instead of being the good soldier my grandfather would have wanted me to be, I decided to be selfish and do what made me happy.
I’m not alone in this either. A lot has been written in recent years about how selfish members of Generation X and the inscrutable Millennial group are. We do what we want when we want; unlike our parents we don’t stay in the same job for thirty years. We’re bored easily, we’re difficult to please, and we’re truculent and spoiled. Yes, this is probably all true. But unlike some other social commentators I don’t blame Saturday Morning Cartoons and far too many bowls of Cap’n Crunch for this. I blame my grandfather.
We haven’t forgotten the lessons from the Greatest Generation, we haven’t forgotten that our nation was built not from divine providence but from shear force of will. We bent this country into the form we wanted it to be and it worked. We’re still doing that today, albeit in a completely different way.
Last year I had the great honor of interviewing Chris Anderson, the former Editor of WIRED magazine and absolute genius. We talked about how manufacturing is evolving and how the Makers in society are transforming society in a way that wasn’t economically viable even a decade ago. This arose from my generation. My generation wasn’t content to sit in their office at IBM or later Microsoft, punch a timecard and go home. Instead they were selfish, they wanted something more but in the process they are changing the world.
In Cape Town I visited a Maker Lab, a place where anyone with an idea can go and work with industrial machines they would not ordinarily have access to. This lets them beta test ideas and even fabricate products. Today in the world there exists the capability to have an idea, produce it yourself and then sell it at a profit all without involving a larger company. The economies of scale made this impossible just a few years ago. We have taken back control of the economy and are creating a brave new world in the process. Kickstarter is another great example. Have a great idea but no way to actualize it? Just submit it on Kickstarter and get the community to fund it for you. Gone are the days of pitching publishers and producers, we can do it all ourselves. If that’s not what my grandfather fought for, then I don’t know what is.
My point is this. If my grandfather were still alive, he would absolutely disapprove of my recent career decisions. I’m not ‘doing’ anything demonstrable. My grandfather worked in a shoe factory for 50 years. Every day he could measure with precision his success at work and had the paycheck every week to prove it. I don’t. I don’t make or produce anything. My expertise is conceptual in nature, but I’m making it work, just like millions of others around the world.
We have all inherited the great legacy of the World War II generation and I don’t think we’ve wasted this unique gift. Instead I think we’ve lived up to this ethos like none other. I don’t think I was doing my grandfather’s legacy justice when I was sitting in a job I hated. I think I was wasting what he gave me both in terms of quality of life and in work ethic. It is only now, now that I’m not punching that time card and not cashing that check that I think, personally, that I am finally able to best thank that remarkable generation for their gifts through my actions and my own life, a life that could not exist at any other time or at any other place and thanks entirely to them.