The greatest generation, v2.0

Would you rather be part of a generation of great people, or part of a great generation?

The answer should be easy. At each point throughout history, great people are everywhere. Truth is, get to know anyone – that’s anyone – well enough, and you’ll uncover a kernel of greatness, of latent or evident potential. Might be extraordinary energy. Strength. A bright mind. Musical talent. A capacity to love. 

Greatness is universal? Yep. As in – it includes you. The rest of us see greatness in you. Don’t flinch from that. Own it[1].

Generations of great people are a dime a dozen.

But a great generation? That requires two ingredients that don’t come along that often. The first? The conjunction of a set of dire global challenges. The second? An emergent group recognition that individual self interest doesn’t conflict in some zero-sum way with the welfare of others and the larger society, but instead coincides. (We’re all in it together.)  Through conversation the development of shared vision about the jobs that need doing, the discovery that everyone has a role to play – and some clarity about and respect for what that role is. Everyone engaged; no bystanders! (Diversity, equity and inclusion not some touchy-feely nice-to-have abstraction, but desperately needed for successful outcomes.) Universal shouldering of individual responsibility – a commitment to shared goals. Millions of people – an entire generation – have to buy in.

As for that first requirement, covid-19 and the past few months have dumped just such a unique opportunity in our laps. Let’s drill down:

To start, the term greatest generation[2] isn’t new, but has been around a while. Recall how that generation earned their stripes. They faced down two global upheavals back-to-back – the Great Depression, which drove millions on every continent into poverty, followed by a sprouting of totalitarian, fascist despots, who fomented the international conflict that grew into World War II. 

We’ve honored that generation, appropriately so, for more than half a century. But as the last members of that generation leave us, can we do no better than honor and mourn the loss of that past? Might not our generation possibly make an even greater mark on history? Where and how might we contribute our talents and gifts to making a better world for ourselves and for those we love? Our children? Our grandchildren? Our friends and their families? People we don’t even know, the world over?

As recently as a few months ago, the answer was there, but obscured by the prevalent (and, in retrospect, unwarrantedly complacent) feeling of well-being. World concern about climate change was growing, but this seemed a small cloud at the horizon barely discernible against an otherwise sunny scene: a humming global economy and a culture of innovation, especially in IT. Disease outbreaks were highly localized problems that generally speaking occurred “somewhere else, in distant, poor places.” Despots seemed once again to be growing in number, but they too were “elsewhere,” – Russia, or the “stans” of central Asia, or Africa, or closer to home – in Venezuela and Brazil. Americans were living from paycheck to paycheck, but those paychecks seemed assured. Chances of our laying claim to “the-greatest generation” seemed slim indeed.

But now existential challenges are everywhere we look, staring us in the face. Covid-19 has revealed fatal shortcomings in our public health infrastructure; brought K-12 public education and higher education to a standstill; and becalmed the economy. Some 26 million Americans (16% of the workforce!) have applied for unemployment in just a few short weeks. Covid-19 has also tattered the social fabric. Shared good times – concerts, sports events, shopping, church, beach-going, happy hours, restaurant meals, you name it – all things we used to know and enjoy? Suspended until further notice. Social inequities, once papered over by favorable economic trends, now stand visible in stark relief. On every continent, autocratic leaders are flexing their muscle; this week’s print edition of The Economist speaks of “a pandemic of power grabs.” All the while, reductions in biodiversity and habitat, environmental degradation and climate change continue to grow more manifest daily.

In the pre-covid world-19, it was easy to trivialize these threats; surely our great wealth and emerging technologies would carry us through. We needed only to divert a smidgen of our attention and our resources from concerns of the moment to these longer-term issues. No chance of glory there. But now any margin our 21st-century lives might recently enjoyed has vanished. The entire human race has the shared task of lifting itself up by the bootstraps. All we have to do is recover the former stability and smooth operation of the day-to-day while addressing the longer-term, bigger concerns, and future generations will see ours as “the (new) greatest.” 

Two observations in closing. 

First, we face a set of three challenges that can’t be addressed in isolation, but instead must be resolved simultaneously[3]:  (1) economic – wresting food, energy, and water from the earth and in the process, restoring the global economy; (2) maintaining and improving public health and safety in the face of natural hazards; and (3) slowing the pace of environmental degradation, habitat loss, and biodiversity.

Second: in a wondrous way, from an individual perspective the problem of playing our part in the grander scheme has become simpler. We don’t have to change fields. We don’t have to pick up stakes and move to some remote world corner. Problems and needs are everywhere. All we have to do is the job we find at hand. 

A final note. As we move forward into this future, as we discover whether we’re to become the greatest generation, or remain something less, perhaps we might call to mind an episode from professional football – one that has been immortalized as The Drive, even earning its own Wikipedia entry. An excerpt:

The Drive was an offensive series in the fourth quarter of the 1986 AFC Championship Game played on January 11, 1987, at Cleveland Municipal Stadium between the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns. Broncos quarterback John Elway, in a span of 5 minutes and 2 seconds, led his team 98 yards in 15 plays to tie the game with 37 seconds left in regulation. Denver won the game in overtime making a 33-yard field goal, pulling off a 23–20 win over the Cleveland Browns.

The 98-yard drive ranks as pro football’s prototypical clutch performance.

John Elway emerged as the hero, but one of my favorite bits of the story was contributed by Broncos offensive guard Keith Bishop, who said of the Browns at the drive’s start, “We got ‘em right where we want ‘em.”

Covid-19? A shattered world economy? Climate change? No worries.

We’ve got this.

[1]Doesn’t mean that everything about every one of us is great. We’re also all imperfect, flawed, not just in the being, but the execution – our actions and deeds. We fall short of our potential. But don’t own that part – instead, get over it.

[2]From Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book by the same title, of course. And to forestall any charges of self-plagiary, the first LOTRW post along these lines dates back to 2011, almost exactly nine years to the day. You can find similar LOTRW references peppered across the intervening years, and in LOTRW, the book (on pages 233-237).

[3]Again, an essential starting point and recurrent theme of LOTRW – both the blog and the book.

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