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Five Lessons We Can Learn From the Greatest Generation

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Dr. Tim Elmore offers five key takeaways from Tom Brokaw's book, The Greatest Generation, to teach us how to become better individuals and to help us strengthen today's society.

The themes for my blogs are generally about leading the next generation well. Today, however, I’d like to explore what we can learn from an elder age.

Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book declared the generation that suffered and persevered through America’s Great Depression and then went on to fight World War II was America’s “Greatest Generation.” The common theme for those among this group of individuals seems to be self-sacrifice. Family working together in unison as a team, and marriages bound by deep commitment, without the shallowness and narcissism so easily found today.

We have made tremendous strides in our society since those days, especially regarding civil rights and technology, but we are losing a great deal of those core values that made this particular American generation worthy of greatness. The organization All Pro Dad, designed to help men become better dads, summarized key takeaways from Brokaw’s book.

Here are five qualities we can learn from the Greatest Generation to help strengthen today’s society:

1. Personal Responsibility

We live in the age of blame. If we can’t find someone at fault for our trials and tribulations, we will just invent something. It is a terribly destructive pattern, not only for personal growth, but to the national health of the entire country. To be given responsibility is an honor and was seen as such during that time. Great lessons of leadership always start with a deep sense of personal responsibility.

2. Humble Nature

Humility and modesty aren’t exactly buzzwords this year. The mantra of today seems to be “The more flamboyant and attention-grabbing, the better!” It is clearly displayed all over popular culture, from television to entertainers to sports stars. In older days, there was an expected norm of dignity and modesty. Society held itself to a higher standard, and humbleness was at the heart of that. It was about the aforementioned self-sacrifice and what was best for community and country. Behavior norms today could benefit greatly by taking a cue from those before us and humbling our hearts accordingly.

3. Work Ethic

One of the hardest things for a parent to instill in a child today is a robust work ethic. For the senior generation, of course, work was not an option. Everyone worked to survive, both personally and as a country. Dad was sometimes working two jobs, Mom was working at a converted munitions factory, and the children were working in all sorts of capacities. They took deep pride in that work as well. Thankfully, we are not in a world war today, and technology has lightened the load on citizens to keep the country prosperous and safe. But our blessings have also given us a generation who, as a whole, look at hard work as a punishment. Slothfulness is nearly at epidemic levels. You know what they say about idle hands…

4. Prudent Saving

We live in a disposable society. Everything is temporary, including our money. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, everything was saved down to the last penny and green bean. To be frugal was the discipline of the day. In the 21st century, we are a consumer-based economy. When war broke out, we were told to go shopping. Imagine how that sounds to the Greatest Generation? We move from one temporary gadget to the next, and it all goes so fast that there’s no need for a repairman anymore. Just get a new one. Unfortunately, this type of thinking has led to a great deal of personal financial stress in this century. Perhaps prudence calls for saving and endurance… and taking a step back from a personal and national fiscal cliff.

5. Faithful Commitment

Is love enough to sustain a marriage? Does loyalty count, or should we constantly be on the lookout for the next green pasture? Is commitment valued in our society, and is a man’s word still gold? The difference between the Greatest Generation and the generation of today in many ways comes down to these questions. To see a 50th wedding anniversary in 2013 is almost a spectacle, and not a normal milestone moving into advanced age. For a person to work at one job long enough to earn a distinction of time served is now the exception and not the rule. When is the last time you shook another man’s hand and truly believed his word was gold? It isn’t that our society is not generous, because we mostly all are. We have achieved great things and have much to be proud of. It is that we are found lacking (as a whole) when looking at who we are compared to who we were. Perhaps the hard times we currently face are a reminder to us of the things that are truly important and the values we are quickly leaving behind…  values the Greatest Generation embodied.

Questions to Ponder

  1. Have we simply moved on to newer “ways” with technology and convenience and disposed of the timeless elements of the Great Generation?
  2. How do loyalty, work ethic, and responsibility look today? How can we embody them in a way that younger generations could emulate?
  3. Do we embrace mentors from an elder generation to help us see these timeless virtues… or do we simply think they’re dinosaurs?

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