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by Doris O'Brien

At a time when even the Man in the White House anoints his favorites with pet monikers, it is embarrassing to acknowledge that my own contemporaries belong to a nameless generation.

We were born sometime between the mid 1920’s and the early 1940’s into a world struggling through massive depression, followed by a war of global proportions.  In time, we found ourselves further marginalized by being squeezed between two iconic powerhouses:  The Greatest Generation, admired for its selfless sacrifices, and The Baby Boomers, envied for their selfish excesses.

Some have facetiously pegged us  “The Sandwich Generation,” not because we were raised on Wonder Bread, but because, more than any preceding generation, we felt the pull of  familial obligations in opposing directions. On the one hand, we were expected to administer to our aging parents, who were the initial recipients of modern medicine’s gift of longevity.  On the other, we nurtured our children, who were often less compliant and more reliant than we were.

Obligation was the byword of our generation.  Assuming we’re still around, we continue, in general, to hold up our end of life’s bargain.  By and large, we vote, volunteer, and make an effort to stitch together the shifting fabric of society.  We were too young to serve in World War II and barely recognized for having fought and died in a so-called "police action” on the frozen plains of Korea.

In simple terms, we are a forgotten generation that waged a forgotten war. Those returning from that conflict unassumingly picked up the strands of their daily and somewhat traditional existence.  Nobody booed or spat on them as they eased  back, without hoopla, into the folds of regular life, expected, as usual, to strive and be quiet about it.

When my mother died a few years ago at age 101,  I found  among her accumulated papers a half-century-old bill for my college tuition.  The document had grown as fragile and worn as its keeper. I was stunned to discover that my parents had arranged to pay my fees on a monthly basis, meticulously calculating, penciling in, and subtracting my scholarship award.

This  discovery illustrated a simple truth:  the rude reversal of fortune in  the late 1920’s— whether from the stock market crash, the Dust Bowl disaster, or Hitler’s madness — knocked many of our parents into an economic hole for a score of years.  In their constant scramble to climb back, they were buoyed by the idea that their offspring might find life easier.  Even as children,  a sense of gravitas settled on us to recognize their sacrifices by realizing their hopes.

Hard times kept our generation relatively small, a demographic that  worked in our favor as we entered the promising job market in the’50s.  Armed with a work ethic and an unlikely sense of optimism, we made things happen. Yet even to this day, we are criticized by subsequent generations for having  served in roles traditionally expected of us.  Most men embraced the responsibilities of being the family breadwinner. Women generally married early and raised children before returning to school or the workplace.  While most of us were teachers, nurses or secretaries, some women of our generation made significant cracks in the metaphorical glass ceilings of other careers.

We were not big on public displays of affection — or disaffection.  Few marched in protest rallies.  Or experimented with drugs.  Or practiced Free Love. Or wandered off  to the fringes of society to find ourselves. Those were cultural rites of passage made affordable later. We were not pampered; our pleasures were simple. It is irrelevant, in retrospect, to bemoan a childhood void of electronic wonders when our parents could likely not have afforded them anyway!

At my fifteenth Wellesley reunion, I was in the audience with other alumnae when then Massachusetts Senator Robert Brooke delivered the commencement address to the Class of ’69.    He was one of the few African-Americans in Congress then, and one of even fewer Black  Republicans.  After the senator concluded his remarks, a class representative rose and delivered a withering attack on what she perceived as his flawed vision of the world.   The student  spokesperson was Hillary Rodham.  While her generation cheered,  mine gasped in disbelief, our precepts of mannerly behavior clearly violated.

It’s probably too late and not all that important —  to give our generation an official name.  For the purposes of consumer targeting,  we might be lumped together loosely as  “the affluent old.”  Every remaining one of us is on Social Security, perhaps the last generation for which the system will truly prove “secure.”  I think we deserve that much.  After all, we are a generation that, even without a catchy handle, managed to make our way in an increasingly troubled world.

Doris O'Brien is a retired college Speech teacher and banker.  She has published two books of humor (Up or Down With Women's Liberation and Humor Me a Little) and for many years contributed light verse to the Pepper 'n Salt column of the Wall Street Journal.  She is a voracious writer of letters to editors.  

Doris celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary in the same year she welcomed her first grandchild,.  She can be reached by e-mail: witsendob at (@)


©2007 Doris O'Brien for SeniorWomenWeb
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