The term “The Greatest Generation” is often used to describe Americans who participated in the war effort in World War II. Many members of this generation went on to become the parents of the Baby Boomers, the generation of people who were born in the years following the war. Chronologically, this group follows the Lost Generation of the 1930s, and precedes the Silent Generation of the 1950s.
The Greatest Generation includes those born roughly between 1900 and the early 1920s. Many members actively served in World War II, leading some people to call this group the GI Generation. Others worked at home to keep the United States productive during the war years. These individuals also helped to rebuild the United States and the world after the ravages of the war.
Some people take exception to the characterization of this generation as consisting of people who supported the war. People who opposed World War II, for example, argue that they contributed in a positive way to society with their political dissent, and that people may have refrained from participation in the war effort for a variety of reasons. As members of the generation aged, many of these concerns became less critical, as all people over a certain age came to be referred to with this label, regardless as to their role in or opinions on the war.
The concept of the Greatest Generation was popularized in a book by Tom Brokaw, which included a number of profiles of members of the group. The book was designed to capture these stories for the benefit of history before the majority of members passed away. Many people characterize the America of this generation as one of innocence and simplicity, and some people idealize the America of the 1940s. Certainly, World War II created an economic boom, and it is sometimes regarded as the last just war, because the reasons for entering the war were so clear to most of the populace.
This generation also faced its share of adversity and problems, however, and not just on the battlefield. Sexism and racism were still serious problems in the United States, and many states had laws on the books to ban miscegenation and property ownership by ethnic minorities. Women may have joined the workforce in greater numbers during the war, but they found themselves shunted back to the kitchen afterwards, while black servicemembers distinguished themselves on the battlefield only to meet with prejudice at home.
Many people in the Greatest Generation also had vivid memories of the hardship of the Depression, and older members remembered World War I as well. Life for people in this generation was far from simple and idealistic, making their contribution to American history and society all the more remarkable.