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Putting a Face on a Nameless Generation

Those born after World War I and before World War II accepted life's responsibilities and duties with grace and fortitude.

by Doris Schaffer O'Brien (GC55)

At a time when even the man in the White House anoints his favorites with nicknames, it is embarrassing to acknowledge that my contemporaries and I belong to a nameless generation.

We were born sometime between the mid-1920s and the end of the 1930s, into a world struggling through the Great Depression, followed by a war of global proportions. Later on we found ourselves further marginalized by being squeezed between two iconic powerhouses: the Greatest Generation, admired for its selfless sacrifices, and the Boomers, envied for their selfish excesses.

Some have pegged us a "sandwich generation," not because we were raised on Wonder Bread, but because, more than any preceding generation, we felt the pull of familial obligations in opposing directions. On the one hand we were expected to administer to our aging parents, who were the initial recipients of modern medicine's gift of longevity. On the other, we nurtured our children, who were often less compliant and more reliant than we were.

Obligation was the byword of our generation. We continue, in general, to hold up our end of life's bargain. We vote, volunteer and try to hold together what many of us view as the fraying of society's moral fabric. We were too young to serve in World War II and barely recognized for having fought and died in a so-called "police action" on the frozen terrain of Korea.

In simple terms, we are a forgotten generation that waged a forgotten war. Those returning from that conflict unassumingly picked up the strands of their daily and somewhat traditional existence. Nobody booed or spat on them as they eased back, without hoopla, into the folds of regular life, expected, as usual, to strive and be quiet about it.

When my mother died a few years ago at 101, I found among her accumulated papers a half-century-old bill for my college tuition. The document had grown as fragile and worn as its keeper. I was stunned to discover that my parents had arranged to pay my fees on a monthly basis, meticulously calculating, penciling in and subtracting my scholarship award.

This discovery illustrated a simple truth: The rude reversal of fortune in the late 1920s and early 1930s — whether from the stock market crash, the Dust Bowl disaster or Hitler's madness — knocked many of our parents into an economic hole for a score of years. In their constant scramble to climb back, they were buoyed by the idea that their offspring might find life easier. Even as children, a sense of gravitas settled on us to recognize their sacrifices by realizing their hopes.

Hard times kept our generation relatively small, a demographic that worked in our favor as we entered the promising job market in the 1950s. Armed with a work ethic and an unlikely sense of optimism, we made things happen.

Yet even to this day, we are criticized by subsequent generations for having served in roles traditionally expected of us. Most men embraced the responsibilities of being the family breadwinner. Women generally married early and raised children before returning to school or the workplace. While most of us were teachers, nurses or secretaries, some women made significant cracks in the metaphorical glass ceiling.

We were not big on public displays of affection — or disaffection. Few of us marched in protest rallies. Or experimented with drugs. Or practiced free love. Or wandered off to the fringes of society to find ourselves. Those were cultural rites of passage made affordable later. We were not pampered; our pleasures were simple. It is irrelevant, in retrospect, to bemoan a childhood void of electronic wonders when our parents could not have afforded them anyway.

It's probably too late — and not all that important — to give our generation an official name. In terms of today's focus groups or consumerism targets, we are likely identified as "the affluent old." Every remaining one of us is on Social Security, perhaps the last generation for which the system will truly prove "secure." I think we deserve that much. After all, we are a generation that, even minus a name, managed to make our way in an increasingly troubled world.

Doris Schaffer O'Brien (GC55), a retired college speech professor and banker, lives in Lompoc, Calif.

We're always on the lookout for fresh alumni insights. If you'd like to submit an essay, see our guidelines.

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