Last week, West Virginia-NPR’s evening news aired interviews with a divergent group of adolescents on how the pandemic has affected them. Their hopeful and insightful comments were encouraging. Essentially, they said that living through COVID-19 with extreme health, school, family and interpersonal stressors helped them learn new coping skills and be more appreciative of what they actually have.
As we see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, we’ve all learned many things about life, hope and inner strengths. The “Greatest Generation,” a term coined by Tom Brokaw to refer to Americans born between 1900 and about 1924, illustrated how young Americans living through tough times used their experience and resiliency to cope and achieve in adulthood. Perhaps today’s young people, born between 2000 and about 2015, who have experienced all the stresses of the COVID-19 environment, may comprise a second Greatest Generation.
Two of the finest examples of the Greatest Generation are West Virginians, Hershel “Woody” Williams, the Medal of Honor recipient for his brave actions during World War II and Gen. Charles “Chuck” Yeager, a U.S Air Force fighter pilot who broke the sound barrier. Characteristics often used to describe those in the Greatest Generation were personal responsibility, humility, strong work ethic and frugality.
Many of the Greatest Generation lived through the 1918-19 flu pandemic and World War I as children. Even those born shortly afterward were affected by that devastating time period. Seeing how young children are now stressed by the events of this past COVID-19 year, I understand why my parents and their contemporaries, who were school-aged children during 1918-1919, were reluctant to talk about those times; they just wanted to look forward. Yet, experiencing tough times in their youth gave many people the skills needed to cope with the Depression of the 1930s and the traumas of World War II.
The Silent Generation, 1925-45, of which I’m a member, were the children of the Greatest Generation, who stressed cooperation, adaptability, thrift, and hard work. The Silents were a small cohort largely because the Depression and World War II kept many families in poverty or apart. We were the last generation to know and grow up with those who experienced the memories and lessons of 1918-19.
Since then, generations have included the children of the Silents, the outspoken adventurous Boomers, born 1944-1964, who were often the opposite of their parents; Generation X, born 1965-1980, Generation Y/ Millennials, born 1981-2000; and Generation Z born 2000-2019.
There has been much gloom and doom about our nation’s current and future mental health because of COVID-19, but Americans have always been resourceful. That’s a good part of the reason there is now an effective COVID-19 vaccine and why our nation has bounced back from multiple crises.
Tough times a century ago helped produce the Greatest Generation, who as adults learned to use the difficult times of their youth to better cope with adult stresses and challenges. Generation Z, which might even become known as Gen C for COVID-19, has the potential to become our second Greatest Generation.