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Lucky

By Russ Smith | Posted 12/7/2005

When the obituary of 65-year-old Tom Brokaw is written at some point in the next few decades, the second paragraph, after a brief recap of his NBC career, will correctly identify the former news anchor as the man who popularized (and profited from) the phrase “The Greatest Generation.” Brokaw’s well-intentioned but overly romantic depiction of the men and women who were born early in the 20th century and endured economic depression and World War II is now frozen in American lore.

Brokaw’s point, quickly exploited by those who make their living in the realm of popular culture—author Douglas Brinkley and filmmaker Steven Spielberg come to mind—was that this group of Americans, often derided in the 1950s as passive conformists and even worse by their children in the ‘60s, were in fact stoic, brave, and not prone to whining. It was a sweeping generalization on Brokaw’s part, but revisionism is a constant with historians, and so that’s that.

I bring this up because of a Nov. 23 essay by John Derbyshire posted on National Review Online. Meditating on Thanksgiving, Derbyshire takes Brokaw’s theme one step further by proclaiming himself as a member of “The Luckiest Generation,” those who were born at midcentury, give or take a few years. Derbyshire, an accomplished journalist, was born in Northampton, England, in 1945 three weeks after VE Day (he moved to New York in the ’80s) and marvels at the fortune he’s had in his 60 years—“luck” that he’s certain won’t be part of his offspring’s lifetime. He writes: “I have got through pretty much my entire life without ever having to work very hard, without ever having seen my country invaded, without enduring war or depression, without suffering any horrid illness, without ever going hungry or wanting for anything. What luck!” And when the sexual revolution commenced, Derbyshire was “fit and ready. Lucky! Lucky! Lucky!”

Never mind that an incalculable number of Derbyshire’s contemporaries didn’t realize such blessings: those ravaged by poverty, drug addiction, drafted into the Vietnam War against their will, and suffering from disabling diseases that could be easily cured today.

What really bothered me about Derbyshire’s piece was his contention that Western civilization as we know it is nearing extinction. He tells his two kids, not yet teenagers, “I am sorry to have brought you into this mess,” predicting that the “Luckiest Generation” will give way to the “Saddest” and maybe even the “Last.”

Maybe so, but it’s doubtful. Derbyshire writes, “Nuclear weapons, throughout my lifetime kept safe under guard in just a handful of reasonably well-ordered nations, will be traded for cash in third-world bazaars and smuggled into American cities ready for the day of judgment. (Perhaps they already have been.) Clever new viruses will mutate, escape from labs, or be released.”

Certainly the U.S. and British governments, among others, are attempting to stave off this possibility—made real by Sept. 11—and that’s why nonconscripted troops are fighting in the Middle East today. With vigilance, Derbyshire’s doomsday speculation won’t come to pass.

The more likely scenario is that succeeding generations will indeed be “luckier” than Derbyshire’s, as communications and scientific technologies keep apace, resulting in a way of life that, for a vast majority, is easier. A lot of the dark predictions for the 21st century are politically based and therefore fleeting. Yes, Social Security and health care are heading toward fiscal disaster, but it’s hard to believe that the next batch of leading politicians—those who are now adolescents and young adults—won’t take it more seriously than the men and women in Washington today, who’ll probably be dead or retired when a neglected crisis occurs. George W. Bush made a hash of his Social Security reform plan, a combination of his own inability to articulate the idea and the inattention of the public, but 20 years from now he’ll be recognized as the first president to recognize that FDR’s “New Deal” wasn’t carved in stone.

The national debt is at a record-high currently, as Democrats regularly point out, but this isn’t an accurate harbinger of the country’s financial health. Just remember the disastrous economic policies of Richard Nixon (wage and price controls) and Jimmy Carter (sky-high interest rates), an era when the “Luckiest Generation” was still youthful, to keep things in perspective.

Derbyshire despairs for his children, “There will be no 9-5 jobs for them to go to after graduation, quite possibly no jobs at all other than in government work, which by that time will occupy a Soviet-sized slice of the national economy.”

That assessment is bleak but surely inaccurate. American life in 2050 won’t resemble that of 1950, a time that’s increasingly remembered as tranquil despite the scourges of racism, polio, higher infant mortality, and the unrecognized dangers of poor diet and excessive use of tobacco and alcohol. It’s inconceivable that in the near future the number of annual auto fatalities (currently about 40,000) won’t be drastically reduced. My father died of a heart attack at the age of 55; in 1972, there weren’t the triple bypasses and cholesterol-lowering drugs, for example, that keep people with the same condition that he had alive today.

Political squabbles aside, as American society progresses I’d guess that my children’s generation will be “luckier” than mine.

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