The Lost Generation

The Atlantic Monthly December 1992

TODAY'S eldest Thirteeners have only the dimmest personal memory of this Lost Generation, the ex-flappers and veteran doughboys whom they vaguely recall from childhood as the burned-out old codgers of the 1960s and 1970s. But when they see old movies and newsreels, they know the label fits: Kinetic Lost, as in Jimmy Cagney and Charlie Chaplin. Evil Lost, as in Boris Karloff and Edward G. Robinson. Adventuresome Lost, as in Humphrey Bogart and Douglas Fairbanks. Mischievous Lost, as in Mae West and the Marx Brothers. Tough Lost, as in "Give 'Em Hell" Harry Truman and "Blood and Guts" George Patton. However you slice it, this was a generation short on preachers -- but long on battle-scarred survivors.

The last time the word "lost" was attached to American youth was in the aftermath of the First World War; it certainly never was applied to Boomers -- who, if anything, grew up a little too "found" for most people's taste. But today the word is staging a comeback in descriptions of today's youth. Does the parallel fit?

For a start, take a look at the social mood in which the Lost Generation grew up. Can we find any similarities between 1890-1910 and, say, 1965-1985? Turn-of-the century America's mood was euphoric for the coming-of-age Missionary prophets but terrifying and disorienting to children. It was an era of widespread substance abuse, when alcohol consumption rose rapidly and newly popular drugs like cannabis (sometimes sold in candy and drinks), heroin (praised by many doctors), and cocaine (back when Coke contained the real thing) went entirely unregulated. It was an era of rising immigration, a trend that reached its peak during precisely the decades (1900-1919) when the young Lost were entering the labor market. And it was an era of prosperity mixed with a crisis of confidence -- when America suddenly became aware of long-standing institutional failures, when "good government" became synonymous with committees and process, when urban wickedness was blamed for destroying the family, and when Dewey-esque educational reforms were in vogue.

All this might sound familiar. And what about the kids themselves?

Were they, perhaps, just a wee bit "bad"? Like Thirteeners, Lost kids grew up with a nasty reputation for crime and violence (popular magazines featured stories like "Bad Boy of the Street" and "Making Good Citizens Out of Bad Boys"). From the decade just before to the decade just after 1900, the number of magazine articles on "juvenile delinquency" skyrocketed.

Were they considered a little dumb? Like Thirteeners, the Lost showed little or no improvement in academic prowess from first birth cohort to last. When young Lost men took the first IQ tests, during the First World War, the results shocked the nation by showing that half the draftees had a "mental age" under twelve. During the 1920s the so-called "threat of the feeble-minded" turned many older voters against foreign immigrants (then a code phrase for stammering young workers) and prompted a Missionary psychologist, Henry Goddard, to apply "moron," "idiot," and "imbecile" as technical terms in identifying gradations of youthful stupidity. When the Lost came to fill America's elder age brackets, in the mid1960s, the gap in educational achievement between Americans over and under age sixty-five was the largest ever measured.

Did they show a bent for self-destruction? Like Thirteeners, the Lost had unusually high suicide rates during their youth, higher than for any other child generation ever measured -- until Thirteeners themselves came along. One cause of their low collective self-esteem was an inability to excuse their own failures in the marketplace (something that came easily to the generation born just before them). They were, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, "a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success."

Did they have a passion for making and spending money? Like Thirteeners, these kids grew up glorifying self-sufficiency. The word "sweatshop" was coined for them, and the motto "It's up to you" was coined by them. They entered the cash labor market as children at a higher rate than any American generation before or since. Unsupervised by parents or government, they liked to work for themselves (as newsies, bootblacks, scavengers, messengers, cashboys, piece-rate homeworkers). With work came money: the Lost built America's first big children's cash economy around candy stores and nickelodeons.

Politically retrograde? Other people called them that. Coming of age, new-breed Lost women disappointed middle-aged suffragettes (who were furious at reports that young women voted for Warren Harding because he was handsome), and their men turned a deaf ear to such older campus-touring radicals as Jack London and Upton Sinclair. Fitzgerald afterward observed that it was "characteristic of the Jazz Age that it had no interest at all in politics." Starting in the 1920s, the Lost blossomed early into this century's most Republican-leaning generation.

Like Thirteeners, the Lost learned early that you have to be tough to survive, to flaunt the physical, to avoid showing fear. Like Thirteeners, they had to grow up fast. "At seventeen we were disillusioned and weary," Malcolm Cowley recalled. Like Thirteeners, they came of age with a reputation for shamelessness ("This Flapper of 1915," the older H. L. Mencken commented, "has forgotten how to simper; she seldom blushes; and it is impossible to shock her"). Like Thirteeners, they were nomadic as young men and women, drawn to cities, to markets, to risk, to the dizzying glamour of new technologies. Like Thirteeners, they expected and received little assistance from government. And like Thirteeners, they constantly heard older people tell them that their chapter of history was likely to close the book on human progress.

The "Lost Generation" tag (invented by Gertrude Stein and used by Ernest Hemingway) became popular during the age wars that escalated after the First World War and during Prohibition. The newfound Missionary emphasis on values and decency found its natural target in the "bad" Lost youths -- their lust, drunkenness, violence, and "Black Sox" corruptibility. General "Black Jack" Pershing took brutal action against doughboy deserters. Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis sentenced hundreds of younger (and no longer inspirational) Wobblies to hard time, and then turned his attention to cleaning up baseball. The taint followed young adults through what Frederick Lewis Allen later called "the Decade of Bad Manners," an era of gangsters, flappers, expatriates, and real-estate swindlers.

The Lost fought back with just the sort of sarcasm, ridicule, and cynicism that was bound to rile their elders. Through the 1920s embittered thirty-year-olds fought ideology with desperate hedonism, babbittry with endless binges, moral crusades with bathtub gin and opulent sex. "America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history," Fitzgerald bubbled -- and John Dos Passos cried, "Down with the middle-aged!" In his 1920 Atlantic Monthly article "'These Wild Young People,' By One of Them," John Carter observed that "magazines have been crowded with pessimistic descriptions of the younger generation" -- but added, "the older generation had certainly pretty well ruined this world before passing it on to us." Almost everything young adults went in for in the twenties -- heavy drinking, loud jazz, flashy clothes, brassy marketing, kinetic dancing, extravagant gambling, sleek cars, tough talk -- sent a defiant message to pompous "tired radicals" (as young writers tauntingly called them) about the futility of searching for deeper meaning.

Later on, after the Lost entered midlife with a crash (the Great Depression), they changed character completely. In families they joined their elders in protecting children almost to the point of suffocation. In the media they were the Irving Berlins and Frank Capras who pushed the culture back to practicality and community.

In politics they turned isolationist and conservative, becoming the Liberty Leaguers and Martin, Barton, and Fish types whom FDR and his white-haired Cabinet blamed for impeding many New Deal crusades. Their two Presidents (Ike and Truman) were get-it-done old warriors, known more for personality than candlepower. At the peak of their earning years they tolerated a crushing 91 percent marginal income-tax rate to support the Marshall Plan for world peace and the GI Bill for a younger generation of veterans. As elders, they took pride in having ushered in the prosperous "American High," even while younger people accused them of being cynical, rock-ribbed reactionaries. Back in the 1950s and 1960s America's old people were extremely poor relative to the young, yet repeatedly voted for candidates who promised to cut their benefits.

The Consolations of History

PRIOR to the Missionaries and the Lost, America was home to three earlier pairs of generations matching the Boomer and Thirteener types, dating back to the very first Old World colonists. The experiences of these ancestral pairs give us important clues into how the attitudes and behavior of today's Boomers and Thirteeners could change over the decades ahead.

The lessons to be learned from earlier Boomerlike generations are these: Once they fully occupied midlife, they turned darkly spiritual, seeking the cerebral and the enduring over the faddishly popular. Once in control of public institutions, they stressed character and serenity of soul over process and programs. They approved of social punishments for violators of deeply held values, preaching morality and principle (which, as they grew older, became increasingly associated with age) over fun and materialism (which became increasingly associated with youth). Entering old age, they used their reputation for moral leadership to bring final closure to whatever problem America faced at the time, even at the risk of catastrophe. Whether the peers of Abraham Lincoln or of Sam Adams or of John Winthrop, they had all come of age during eras of spiritual awakening -- nothing like the eras of history-bending cataclysm they all presided over as elderly priest-warriors.

History suggests that the Thirteener life-cycle experience is something else altogether. Every time, the Thirteenerlike generations started out life as risk-taking opportunists, picking their way through the social detritus left behind by their Boomerlike predecessors. And every time, reaching midlife at a time of national crisis and personal burnout, they underwent a profound personality transformation. Their risk-taking gave way to caution, their wildness and alienation turned into exhaustion and conservatism, and their nomadic individualism matured into a preference for strong community life. The same unruly rebels and adventurers who alarmed the Colonies during the 1760s later became the crusty old Patrick Henrys and George Washingtons who warned younger statesmen against gambling with the future. The same gold-chasing forty-niners and Civil War brigands whom Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called a generation whose "hearts were touched with fire" became the stodgy "Old Guard" Victorians of the Gilded Era. The same gin-fizz "Flaming Youth" who electrified America during the 1920s became the Norman Rockwells and Dwight Eisenhowers who calmed America during the 1950s.

All these generations repeatedly found themselves in situations that are becoming familiar to Thirteeners. When something went right, they always got less than their share of the credit; when something went wrong, they always got more than their share of the blame. In contrast, the Boomerlike generations always found a way to claim more than their share of the credit and accept less than their share of blame. Small wonder, then, that the Boomer types kept stepping in and out of generational arguments.

If history tells us that the Boomer-Thirteenth quarrel will worsen over the coming decade, it also suggests when and how this new generation gap could resolve itself. The experience of their like-minded ancestors suggests that once Boomers start entering old age, they will ease their attacks on Thirteeners. Once they see their values focus taking firm root in American institutions -- and once their hopes are fixed on a new and more optimistic (post-Thirteenth) generation -- Boomers will lose interest in the quarrel. As they enter midlife, Thirteeners will likewise tire of goading Boomers. As they change their life tack from risk to caution they will quit trying to argue about Boomer goals and will focus their attention on how to achieve their own goals practically, with no more hurt than is absolutely necessary.

The key to a favorable resolution of the Boom-Thirteenth clash may lie in one of its inherent causes. To find this cause, visit America's hospital nurseries or day-care centers or primary-school classrooms, grades K through 5. It's the fledgling "Millennial Generation" of Jessica McClure and Baby M, of Jebbie Bush and Al Gore III, whose birth years will ultimately reach from 1982 or so to sometime around 2000. Recall that one big reason Boomers are so intent on policing Thirteener behavior is to clear and clean the path for these Babies on Board to grow up as the smartest, best-behaved, most civic-minded kids in the history of humankind -- or, at a minimum, a whole lot better than Thirteeners. And while Thirteeners would hardly put it the same way, they, too, are eager to reseed the desert that was their youth and help the nation treat the next round of kids to a happier start in life.

Has this happened before? Yes -- most recently when today's GI seniors were children. Midlife Missionaries fussed mightily over these kids, praying that they would turn out as good as the Lost had been bad. And by all accounts that's just what the GIs became: from the sunny optimism of Pollyanna to the team spirit of the Rooney/Garland teen films, from the good deeds performed by the uniformed CCC to the globe-conquering accomplishments of soldiers whom the Missionary General George Marshall lauded as "the best damned kids in the world." GIs responded to the sacrifices of their parents with respectful deference.

America still does not treat children very well. Older generations still burden them with mounting debt and decaying public works, and tolerate an economic order that condemns many more children than older people to poverty and unmet health-care needs. But look around. From bipartisan proposals to increase Headstart and Medicaid funding for toddlers to surging popular interest in elementary schools, from the crackdown on deadbeat dads to the call for infant safety seats on airplanes, a national consensus is emerging that the childhood world must and will be repaired. It won't happen in time to save today's inner-city teens and $7-an-hour twentysomethings, but maybe it will in time to save the wanted, Scoutlike kids coming up just behind Bart Simpson.

If, slowly but surely, Millennials receive the kind of family protection and public generosity that GIs enjoyed as children, then they could come of age early in the next century as a group much like the GIs of the 1920s and 1930s -- as a stellar (if bland) generation of rationalists, team players, and can-do civic builders. Two decades from now Boomers entering old age may well see in their grown Millennial children an effective instrument for saving the world, while Thirteeners entering midlife will shower kindnesses on a younger generation that is getting a better deal out of life (though maybe a bit less fun) than they ever got at a like age. Study after story after column will laud these "best damn kids in the world" as heralding a resurgent American greatness. And, for a while at least, no one will talk about a generation gap.