|The Lost Generation
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
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
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
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
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
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.