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B. Jeffrey Madoff Headshot

The Greatest Generation Takes a Sip of Bourbon

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My parents were small business owners in Akron, Ohio. They were hard working, not wealthy, but comfortable. They had financial struggles, scary ones, but my sister and I never knew about it. We always had what we needed. We didn't need that much; clothing, food, books and spending money, which we earned from jobs when we were teenagers.

My parents were part of "The Greatest Generation" as it has been labeled by Tom Brokaw, those born between 1910 and the mid 1920s. When they were born the United States was at the beginning of its ascent to world dominance in the automobile industry, communications and banking. It was a country made up of many immigrants and first generation Americans who would work hard and learn to sacrifice, first as a result of the Great Depression, then World War II.

My sister and I are "Baby Boomers", born between 1943 and 1964. The "boom" related to the sheer number of us born after World War II. We certainly weren't the greatest but we were the most expressive about whatever it was we expressed fostering a boom in music, movies, political and self involvement . There were no iPods, cell phones, laptops or any other kind of computer, video cameras nor designer clothing. When we graduated from college we were expected to make our way in the world - that's what I tell my kids, members of the Millennial Generation. We believed our generation's contribution was unique - just like everyone thinks about their own generation.

Since the "Baby Boomers", there has been Generation X, Generation Y, Millennials and Generation Z or The iGeneration. Each generation has certain traits ascribed to it, mostly of use to advertisers and marketers as they try to understand the increasingly fragmented consumer population and hope to get them to buy whatever their clients are selling.

The traits are specific enough to be enticing and general enough to be meaningless - like astrological signs. Attributes like pragmatic, self-reliant, distrust of authority, creative, attracted to finer things in life, aggressive, out-spoken appear in both astrological descriptions of personalities and generational traits. Like most things, we believe what reinforces our existing beliefs and lend significance to things we think are significant.

The main aspects that separated us Baby Boomers from our parents' generation were their sense of obedience, commitment and discipline. More than anything, there was a strong belief in our major institutions; government, banking, business and medicine. In the 1950s there were only three television networks, no internet and people were not constantly barraged with hailstorms of images and voices competing for their attention. Maintaining that image was much more easily managed. The net result was, life seemed a lot simpler. Values seemed to be more unified and intact.

I don't think any generation can take credit for being "the greatest". Things happen. History is recorded. History gets interpreted. Subsequent generations reinterpret it.

The pristine image of suburban life in the 1950s cracked wide open in movies like "Rebel Without a Cause" and books like "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit". The civil rights and women's rights movements finally broke the surface and forced people to confront issues long ignored. Gay rights weren't even on the radar.

The significance of every generation will be examined, interpreted and reinterpreted, but in reality, the distinctions between them aren't so clear. Every generation had its leaders, creators, crooks, celebrities, innovators, rebels and deviants. It's easy to look back and ascribe certain traits to certain generations, but those categories don't have real or lasting meaning. Inevitably as time moves forward, our looks back tend to be more nostalgic.

I remember a friend's father saying as he exhaled a cloud of cigarette smoke, "We didn't have gays when I was your age and colored people knew their place." He finished a tumbler of bourbon. "And drugs, I never knew anybody who did drugs. Take my advice, go work for an established company, put some money away in a good pension fund and let people who know what they're doing take care of the rest. You kids got it so good and you don't even realize it."

He was right about the last part, we did have it good and we didn't realize it.

I wonder what my friend's father would have thought about cell phones, the Internet. and hundreds of television stations. September 11th. The war in Iraq. General Motors, Chrysler, Lehman Brothers, AIG and Washington Mutual all going bankrupt. What would he have thought about employer healthcare costs rising more than 120% over the last ten years? China owning the majority of our nation's debt? An economic collapse second only to the Great Depression. What would he think about gay marriage? And I'd love to see the look on his face when I tell him we now have a Black President - but I can't. He believed those cigarette commercials in the 1950s. He died of lung cancer 15 years ago.