The Greatest Generation: Birth Years, Characteristics, and History

June 13, 2020  - by 

“The Greatest Generation” refers to the generation in the United States that came of age during the Great Depression and later fought in World War II. They are sometimes called the G.I. Generation or the World War II Generation. Did you have family who fought in World War II? Search for their name in FamilySearch military records below.

As a group, this generation persevered through the difficult times brought on by economic stress and war. The result was a generation that knew how to withstand hardship and built a better world because of it. 

What Are the Birth Years of the Greatest Generation?

Members of the Greatest Generation were born in the 1900s to the 1920s. There’s no universal cut-off date, but some sources have defined the Greatest Generation as people born from 1901 to 1927 or 1901 to 1924. 

Their parents were likely part of the Lost Generation. Many also had children in the Baby Boomer generation.

woman in ww2 working on aircraft

Why Are They Called the Greatest Generation?

“The Greatest Generation” got its name from a book by the same name. The book The Greatest Generation was written by Tom Brokaw, a journalist for NBC. In his book, Brokaw explores the stories and characteristics of this generation. The book expresses the belief that this generation is the greatest ever produced by society. In particular, Brokaw admired their desire to do the right thing. 

What Is this Generation Known For?

This generation’s childhood was marked by economic success and technological advancements such as the radio and telephone. This success was in stark contrast with their later years, which were marked by economic turmoil when the Great Depression hit as a result of the 1929 stock market crash. The depression lasted roughly a decade and resulted in a 25 percent unemployment rate. 

In the wake of Pearl Harbor, millions of men enlisted to defend and fight for their country. In their absence, women rose to the occasion to support their country and their families by working in factories and elsewhere. Everyone involved is still remembered for their bravery and sacrifice.

ww2 soldiers in a tank
Credit by National Archives Record Administration

After facing the struggles brought on by war and a struggling economy, the veterans who returned home and their families rebuilt their communities and the economy.

Greatest Generation Characteristics

The economic turmoil of the Great Depression profoundly impacted the this generation, leaving its members with the desire to end poverty and create economic opportunities. As a result of their drive, this generation is recognized for their success in later years. 

family portrait from the 1930s, known as producing the "greatest generation"

In part a result of the Great Depression and World War II, this generation developed great resilience in surviving hardship and solving problems. Below are a few characteristics that define the Greatest Generation.

  • Personal Responsibility: The harsh reality of the Great Depression forced many to a higher standard of personal responsibility, even as children.
  • Humility: The Great Depression fostered modesty and humility in many of those who lived through scarcity.
  • Work Ethic: Hard work enabled survival during both the depression and the war. Many jobs at the time were physically demanding, with long hours.
  • Frugality: Saving every penny and every scrap helped families survive through times of shortage. “Use it up, fix it up, make it do, or do without” was a motto of their time.
  • Commitment: One job or one marriage often lasted an entire lifetime.
  • Integrity: People valued honesty and trustworthiness, values fostered by the need to rely on one another.
  • Self-Sacrifice: Millions sacrificed to defend their country or support the war effort from home.

Is Anyone from the Greatest Generation Still Alive?

Today, most surviving members of the Greatest Generation would be over 100 years old, or centenarians. Roughly 75,000–90,000 centenarians are alive in the United States and an estimated 343,000 are still living worldwide. Plus, the youngest members of the Greatest Generation would be in their 90s. 

Many veterans of World War II were part of the Greatest Generation. In the United States, around 300,000–390,000 World War II veterans are still alive.

Long story short, this generation lives on. Keep their stories alive by preserving the memories and photos of your loved ones who lived during this time. FamilySearch Memories lets you record their stories or read the memories that others have shared. 

Writer Michael Kelley noted, “Americans knew that to survive they had to depend on their families.” Whether your family members from the Greatest Generation are still alive, their legacy lives on today in your family. Ask your parents or grandparents about them and their families.

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Comments

  1. My Mom was born in 1926. During WWII as a new bride she worked at Speed Queen Washing Machine Co. in Newton, Iowa making rifle clips for Browning Automatic Rifles. Later she returned home to Oakland , California and became a welder in the shipyards helping to build Liberty Ships for the war effort.

  2. Yes, my Dad, and my biological Dad, and uncles served in the Navy and Army during this time . Some came home with PTSD , i being a little girl did not know of their trials until I was grown. So grateful for their service and dedication to this beautiful country. Thank you to all who love and serve for the preservation of all we love and hold dear.

    1. Hi Jake. I’ve checked all of the links on this article and all of them work. Let me know if there is a specific link you’re having trouble with and maybe I can help with that.

      1. All I get now is sales pitches for Family Search and other ancestry connections to the LDS . No informative links about the lost generation to be found

        1. What specific link are you referring to? Some of the links in the article are informative and others are for experiences that FamilySearch offers to anyone who has a free account. These experiences include a Search page where anyone can explore our free records. The other experience is our Memories page which is a place where all of the photos, stories, documents, and audio recordings that you (or your relatives) add to FamilySearch are collected. Memories can only be accessed by those who log in with their free FamilySearch account.

  3. My father worked at North Island Navel Air Station, San Diego. My two brothers, Nicholas,Jr and Conrad W. Schafer were also born there. My parents moved in 1945 to Omaha, NE. However I can remember a P-38 crashing in my back yard.

    1. Although this is the best estimate that our writer found in their research, each generation has a bit of overlap with the generations before and after.

  4. Your blog on the Greatest Generation brought back many memories for me, some good some not so good.
    I am 96 years old and lived through the Great Depression and WW11 so guess I am a member of the Greatest Generation.
    I lost my first husband in the war. His B29 was shot down on the first land based bombing of Japan.
    I also had a brother and four brothers-in-law in that war. They all returned safely.
    My second husband was also a veteran of that war.
    A granddaughter recently asked me to tell her about my life during the Great Depression and WW11. I am going to send her a copy of your blog as it does such a good job of describing how things were.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences! I’m happy that the FamilySearch writers could do this topic justice.

  5. A great reminder of the salutary values of a century ago; but sad to reflect on how far from those values has society today drifted in this age of entitlement-without-responsibility and consumption-without-conscience.

  6. This also applies to Great Britain. People of that generation still have the characteristics described here, and have none of the selfishness, vanity and “me me me” attitudes of the later generations

  7. We were brought up to honor the flag and the country,to help our neighbors, to work hard for what yu got and not to expect someone else, the state or the fed government to support us. No medical insurance. We paid our own bills.and enjoyed a much freer life. Not regulated to death. 92 years old. Ret Msgt. WWII and Korea.

  8. Victor Emil Thomsen Jr. was a Marine in WWII in 1942-1945. He passed away June 4, 2020. He was my first husband. I would like to see the information you might have on him.