July 1, 2011

The Best Four Years

“This is the greatest generation any society has produced.”

—Tom Brokaw

“I want you to consider what I believe are the most misleading . seven words in the experience of college students. They are these: 'The best four years of your lives.'”

—Dr. Dale T. Knobel

President, Denison University


When Tom Brokaw wrote his book, The Greatest Generation, he was struck by the strength, determination and accomplishments of the elder generation he met while growing up in South Dakota. These were the men and women who fought World War II at home and abroad and then, through its great discipline, enterprise and intrinsic optimism, rebuilt much of the world in the decades that followed.

But wait. What about the generation of Americans who, at great personal sacrifice and risk, showing bottomless determination, migrated west on oxen-drawn wagons, across the seemingly endless prairie and impassable Rocky Mountains, to settle, raise families and establish the rule of law west of the Mississippi?

And what about the generation of Americans that fought the War Between the States, the great Civil War that decided the fate of the nation and ended slavery on these shores? Was their sacrifice—650,000 war dead alone—of lesser consequence than that of Brokaw's greatest generation?

I don't purport to know the answer to that question. But what I do know is that as the generations succeed one another, each carries within it the seeds of greatness. This is part of what Dr. Knobel told 2011 graduates during ceremonies on Denison's Ohio campus in May—ceremonies I attended as my oldest child received her degree. What he said was this: Individuals are not static; college is not the end of life, but barely the beginning of adult lives that will be glorious on some days, difficult on others. When we look back on our lives, most of us will find it difficult to decide which were the “best.” Was it the success at the first job? When we met and wooed our spouse? The period when our children grew like wild weeds and became the adults we know, love and respect today?

Just as this message has strong currency with today's graduates, I believe it translates, as well, into how we, as mostly Baby Boomer senior managers, view four-generation workforce. We have a tendency to look askance at the Millennials—people born after 1980 or so—who work with us today. The Learning Café, a workforce management company, notes that even the managers among the Millennial generation view the workplace far differently than we do. They have low regard for hierarchy, great respect for continually demonstrated skill and knowledge, a much greater willingness to accommodate non-traditional work habits, workplaces and styles, a greater ability to multitask and no expectation of lifetime employment anywhere.

Yet they work hard, work more naturally in teams than Boomers and crave the knowledge to do great things. They intend, in their own way, to become the next “Greatest Generation.”

In many respects, each of the generations we remember have both succeeded and failed. Brokaw's favorites imprisoned Japanese Americans and had to be forced to accept civil rights for all. The Westward-ho generation essentially stole the West from the rightful owners. Our Civil War forbearers committed atrocities during and after that war that still stain any realistic history of our nation.

As we look at the immense challenges that face us today—the budget deficit, global warming, the troubled world—we must understand that our best four years, as a nation, still remain ahead of us. Our generation contributed to our issues. Ours must help resolve them. But those young people at those thousands of graduation ceremonies—they will rise to the occasion and show leadership when called upon to do so. For as far into the future as we can see, they are going to be our greatest generation.