Generations, Part 3: Traditionalist Ghost Stories

For the past 15 years, September 11th has been an important date on the calendar of virtually every American as a day to remember the thousands who died in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and an isolated field near Shanksville, PA, as well as the thousands of first responders who rushed toward danger rather than away from it. But there is a growing number of Americans for whom this date is simply a day to read about in the history books. Like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK, or the space shuttle Challenger explosion, the events of 9/11/01 will become the next generation’s history lesson. But these events along with many others helped to shape the generations that came before. Haydn Shaw calls them “ghost stories,” because “[they] help us make sense of momentous events and explain who we are today and why. They live on like ghosts.” Couples tell each other their personal ghost stories, that’s usually how they fall in love in the first place, and the stories help them understand and appreciate one another. In the same way, each generation needs to understand the ghost stories of the others if we are going to appreciate one another and move past our sticking points.

Obviously, no one person can be captured by a generalization, and when we made a judgment about a specific individual based on a generalization we fall into the trap of stereotyping. To avoid this, it is best to interact with people from other generations, hearing their ghost stories while sharing with them your own. But this is not easy. In most instances, people naturally gravitate toward others from the same generation – the same culture as themselves, so we must make a concerted effort to follow the 5 steps Shaw outlined in chapter 3 of Sticking Points to lead through our differences.

Traditionalists: Keep Calm and Carry On

(Born Before 1945)

The Traditionalist generation built many of the organizations that exist today, and so their ghost stories are essential to understand how we got here. Their 4 major ghost stories are:

  1. The Great Depression which taught them to conserve just about everything, to make do with whatever they had, and to value family activities.

  2. World War II which taught them the importance of sacrifice and patience, the power of large government programs, and what we can do as a nation when everyone just does their duty.

  3. The Farm-to-City Migration which shifted 40% of the population from rural to urban and suburban areas. This move had several key impacts on society.

    • It became harder to instill a strong ethic once families moved away from the farm. On the farm your work is directly related to its reward – if you milk the cows you’ll have milk for breakfast – but in the city your work is only indirectly tied to its benefits.

    • It delayed the age at which young people adopt adult roles. Instead of being considered an adult when you could do adult work, most young people today aren’t considered adults until around age 26, and they don’t see themselves as adults until age 28!

    • It provided opportunities to commit crimes, abuse drugs, and become an unwed mother. While these things happened in rural areas, too, the fact that everyone knew everyone else made crime more difficult and quick weddings were often arranged when a young woman got pregnant.

    • Life was no longer driven by the sun, but by the electron. When work can be done at all hours of the day or night, there is less concern about when it is done as long as it gets done.

  4. Mass Marketing and Confidence in Experts which was fueled by the rise of radio and the voice of “experts” who were successful in guiding the nation through the Depression and two World Wars and produce an unprecedented national unity.

Why do we need to know the ghost stories of “the greatest” generation? Because, as Haydn Shaw notes, “Those apparitions still surface in the halls of business, in family gatherings, in nonprofit board meetings, and at the polling booths. The Traditionalists’ commitment to sacrifice, hard work, orderliness, structure, and authority brought us through times when it seemed the world might fall apart. Their alternative title, ‘Builders,’ is apt: they built the world we live in today.”

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