Reflections from the Lost Generation

People who were around 20-40 years old during World War I are what historians and Gertrude Stein dubbed “the Lost Generation”. In the early post-war years, many of the men returned jaded, displeased, and disenfranchised with the world as it was. Among 20 and 30-somethings, the roaring ’20s weren’t great and instead symbolized a lot of what was wrong with the world. Primarily the accumulation of wealth and materials.

Notably, the Lost Generation produced no “great” Americans in typical metrics of success. No presidents, no Supreme Court justices, few patents among its members, and no great cultural movements. There’s a reason your history textbooks can’t pin much on this group beyond Poodle Skirts. This just 20 and 30 years after the mind rush that was the Theodore Roosevelt presidency.

It wasn’t all lost, of course. Great American literature did come of this period thanks to the works of T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and the production of books like The Great Gatsby.

I see a lot of parallels between that generation and millennials today. The wars are on decidedly different scales, but the listlessness and recklessness of both generations is palpable. If the Lost Generation made any lasting impact, it was making people understand the effect of war. How war could destroy men and their souls, particularly in the meat grinder that was WWI. Many would re-live that horror 30 years later in WWII.

I say all this to clarify my thinking on a much bigger warning sign from the Lost Generation. The 1910s and ’20s were a time of explosive economic growth. Like today, many of the gains were at the top, but unlike today crowds of people at the low end of income could rise up. And then it all came crashing down in the Great Depression. We’ve learned a lot from that time in how we structure our economic system and safeguards. We can only hope that was enough of a lesson.

It’s also worth noting the Lost Generation didn’t make much noise as brutal dictators in Europe took power. Like today, the fringes of our worse demons took over slowly, then quickly. It took a shockingly long time for the angels of our better nature to turn the tide.

History repeats itself, and American history has been remarkably repetitive on a generation-or-two cycle in everything from fashion to economic practice. With any luck, I’m wrong and millennials won’t be a generation whose only long-term impact is showing the harmful nature of military and economic warfare on groups of people who had no decision making power in the process.

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