Tom Brokaw wrote the book about the generation of Americans who grew during the depression and fought in World War II. In his preface, Brokaw describes the people he researched and wrote about this way: “These men and women came of age in the Great Depression, when economic despair hovered over the land like a plague. They had watched their parents lose their businesses, their farms, their jobs, their hopes. They had learned to accept a future that played out one day at a time. Then, just as there was a glimmer of economic recovery, war exploded across Europe and Asia. When Pearl Harbor made it irrefutably clear that America was not a fortress, this generation was summoned to the parade ground and told to train for war. They left their ranches in Sully County, South Dakota, their jobs on the main street of Americaus, Georgia, they gave up their place on the assembly lines in Detroit and in the ranks of Wall Street, they quit school or went from cap and gown directly into uniform.
…They answered the call to help save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instrument of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs. When the war was over, the men and women who had been involved, in uniform and in civilian capacities, joined in joyous and short-lived celebrations, then immediately began the task of rebuilding their lives and the world they wanted. They were mature beyond their years, tempered by what they had been through, disciplined by their military training and sacrifices. They married in record numbers and gave birth to another distinctive generation, the Baby Boomers. They stayed true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor, and faith.”
Brokaw is so impressed with this generation and their exploits that he calls them – and his book about them – The Greatest Generation. Brokaw spends a lot of pages interviewing members of the greatest generation and telling their stories, and draws conclusions about their bravery, their sacrifices, their accomplishments, and the consequences of their actions.
What he doesn’t talk about is how the generations that came after his greatest one – the Baby Boomers, Generations X and Y, the Millennials, et al, were significantly different, especially when it came to consumerism and branding.
While WWII was certainly not the last war in which generations of young Americans have fought and died, it was the last war to be fought by all levels of American society. And while too many American lives were lost in wars from Korea and Vietnam to Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, WWII was the last war that enveloped and defined an entire generation, regardless of social standing, financial wherewithal or education.
As such, the generations that have followed Brokaw’s greatest one have looked for new ways to define themselves and many have embraced consumerism as their comprehensive, albeit shallow, defining factor.
Our parents’ generation is known by the wars it fought. Our generation is known by the things we bought.
The large black plastic keys for Mercedes, BMWs, and Jaguars; the doorstop-shaped profile of the Toyota Prius; the bitten Apple logo glowing on computers and phones; Lauren’s polo ponies and Gucci’s interlocking Gs are all icons that the undefined generations use to tell the world who they are. Somehow Rosie The Riveter’s “We can do it” has morphed to “We can buy it.”
Even younger consumers who claim to eschew brands and commercialism use the things they own – from flip-flops to ironic tee shirts to tattoos and piercings – to establish their place in their own tribes of crunchies, hipsters, geeks, and more.
For those of us born after The Greatest Generation, our lack of a defining moment in world history forced us to look elsewhere. Instead of a war and the sacrifices it required, we are defined by the things we own and display to the world. In other words, our parents’ generation is known by the wars it fought. Our generation is known by the things we bought.