A few weeks ago, political commentator and former Reagan speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, joined the chorus of those questioning whether the current generation leading America will leave America’s children something better. In her August 7, 2010 Wall Street Journal column, Noonan writes,
“The biggest political change in my lifetime is that Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did. This is a huge break with the past, with assumptions and traditions that shaped us…The country I was born into was a country that had existed steadily, for almost two centuries, as a nation in which everyone thought—wherever they were from, whatever their circumstances—that their children would have better lives than they did. That was what kept people pulling their boots on in the morning after the first weary pause: My kids will have it better. They’ll be richer or more educated, they’ll have a better job or a better house, they’ll take a step up in terms of rank, class or status…Parents now fear something has stopped…they look around, follow the political stories and debates, and deep down they think their children will live in a more limited country, that jobs won’t be made at a great enough pace, that taxes—too many people in the cart, not enough pulling it—will dishearten them, that the effects of 30 years of a low, sad culture will leave the whole country messed up.”
But we have to ask, “Is it true? Has every American generation been confident that they were creating something better for their children? Is America a country that, as Noonan says, has existed steadily? One in which everyone thought their children would have better lives than they did?”
Consider a few major inflection points in American life and whether this intergenerational ethic was as clear and present to those who experienced them as they may appear in our historical mythology.
The American Revolution
America’s very founding revealed a country divided. Roughly one-third of the colonists were Tory supporters of England, one-third were what modern pollsters call “undecided,” and just one-third earned the title of rebel, whether given as compliment or pejorative. There was no consensus that one generation was leaving a better world for the next. That uncertainty was exacerbated—not settled—by Britain’s surrender.
The Civil War
Imagine yourself in the 1850s as the country spiraled ever closer to succession and war over the expansion of slavery. Regardless of one’s politics or geography, it is hard to imagine that either unionists or secessionists were certain they were leading their children down a path to a better country. And during the War itself, people’s confidence in America was shaken by the sheer scale of loss of life, disease and injury, destruction of whole cities, hunger, and fear that America and its ideals were disintegrating.
The Long Depression
The post Civil War Depression of the 1870’s was the worst America had seen in length and depth. Throughout the US and Europe, people were still reeling from devastating wars and economic collapse marked my deflation and bank failures. There were no formal safety nets, no pension plans, and only modest social and civil protections. By the panic of 1873, Americans had been living with a good 20 years of fear, uncertainty, war, and social turmoil. Little was certain, not least the future.
World War I
America’s “doughboys” were fighting a war that few felt would create a better world? The War was largely one of attrition marked more by new technologies of unprecedented brutality than by any sense of social or political accomplishment. The doughboys returned to a country that was not prepared to employ them, help them heal, or otherwise honor their service. Not America’s finest moment, and hardly a time of inspiring confidence in the future for the veterans or their children.
The Great Depression
The generation leading America through the 1930s faced much greater economic, social, and political turmoil than we do today and with far fewer resources for addressing those challenges. Were they confident that their children would be better off? Was America for them “steady?” If we think we are “disheartened” today, imagine how they must have felt.
World War II
Americans confronted global totalitarianism, the physical destruction of Europe, death camps, mass famine, casualties counted in the tens of millions. Our home front was divided far more than our selective and romantic memories recall. The outcome of the War was highly uncertain when America entered, our military was woefully underprepared. Parents sent their children into battle unclear whether the world would be better for it—hoping perhaps, but far from certain. They became what some call “The Greatest Generation” but no one knew that at the time.
This list is not comprehensive, nor does it come close to fully conveying the tremendous uncertainty with which Americans have lived since before this country was founded. But it serves as a good reminder, a grounding, a context for examining our current economic, political, and social challenges in a more realistic manner. We are not as bad off as the persistent social buzz might indicate.
For what has bound America over the years is not the constant assurance that one generation is creating a better world for the next generation; rather, it is the constant aspiration to create a better world. The distinction may seem subtle, but it is everything. We can never KNOW that our children will have it better, but heaven help us if we give up wanting it that way.
America has been about moving forward despite adverse conditions to raise loving families, start important businesses, build new friendships and communities, develop new technologies, build houses of worship, and expand the definition of freedom and human rights. America has never been constant or steady in the challenges it has faced. It has however, found over and over its core, its center, its commitment to persisting anyways in the desire to create a better world.
As always, the elements that have made America great are under tremendous pressure. When things are difficult as they so often are, it is natural that some would cry for more government regulation and control, and some for closed borders. At times like this, people look for scapegoats in immigrants, political opponents, and those from other cultures and religions. It is to be expected that some will lose hope and think that we as a country are lost—such despair is also a constant in American life.
However, we have more tools at our disposal than previous generations, far greater resources, better social support networks, more innovative technology, more accurate information, and most importantly, the wisdom gained from the experience of previous generations. America has not lost or forgotten something; we are simply struggling to recall what we already know and put it to action.
On this anniversary of the founding of our company, we move forward with great anticipation. Our lives have been greatly blessed by the generations before us who sacrificed, worked, thought, risked, persisted, and created. We expect our children—and theirs—to be able to say the same.