The Lost Generation

By: Anna Pekrul, BSW Candidate, Kovir LLC Intern

One Generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever…

– Hemmingway, The Sun Also Rises

The Lost Generation:

In the years following World War Ⅰ (also called the Great War), writer Gertrude Stein spoke these words to a young Ernest Heminway: “All of you young people who served in the war… You are all a lost generation” (Morton, 2020). For context, World War I was an unimaginably horrific war to fight in, even by today’s standards. As The Borgen Project explains, “World War I is one of the worst wars in history partially because it was among the first wars to have been fought using modern warfare tactics. Up until then, no one had ever seen a war of such scale, and the resulting trauma rippled through several generations” (Seven Worst Wars in History, 2017). While true, there is little debate that the generation most heavily affected by the war consisted of individuals who reached adulthood during, or shortly after the conflict. In general, the lost generation refers to people born during the last two decades of the 19th Century. However, Strauss & Howe (1991) are a bit more specific, defining the lost generation (also called the “Generation of 1914” in other parts of the world) as the social cohort born between 1883 and 1900 (Generations: The History of America’s Future).

Why They Were “Lost”:

Following the end of World War Ⅰ in 1918, those lucky enough to make it home still had to come to terms with the horrific situations they had witnessed abroad, or read about at home. The war had cost them everything; friends, careers, family plans, and livelihoods were all lost. Now, in their 20s and 30s, a period usually marked by personal growth and joyful rites of passage, many couldn’t bring themselves to move forward. They felt completely disillusioned and directionless. This was made more challenging by President Harding’s “back to normalcy” policy, which many found emotionally dismissive of their experiences (Longley, 2020). How, they wondered, after witnessing such pointless carnage and destruction, could they return to life as they knew it before? As O’Connor (2012) describes, “Having seen pointless death on such a large scale, many lost faith in traditional values and beliefs like courage, patriotism, masculinity, and religious affiliation. Some in turn became aimles, reckless, and focused on material wealth, unable to believe in abstract ideals” (Lost Generation).

The Lost Generation of Writers:

The term “lost generation” can be used to describe all individuals born in the last two decades of the 1800s, however, it is more often associated with a group of well-known American writers who came of age and published works in the period after World War Ⅰ. Authors and poets such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Wilfred Owens, T. S. Eliot, Sylvia Beach, J. R. R. Tolkien, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley, and E.E. Cummings “…voiced their deep sense of loss, anger, and disillusionment” in their many novels and poems (Morton, 2020). For instance, Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Farewell to Arms both describe the tumultuous experiences of characters living through the Great War period and afterwards. Additionally, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous work, The Great Gatsby, details the dissolute and materialistic lifestyles many “lost” individuals pursued in the years after the war (Morton, 2020).

A New Lost Generation:

While born a century apart, many comparisons can be made between the lost generation (1883-1900) and millennials (1981-1996). To begin with, both generations were heavily affected by the impacts of war. Just as growing up or coming of age during the Great War influenced the lives of the lost generation, millennials were profoundly affected by the War on Terror. Many millennials can recall the traumatic experience of watching the events of 9/11 unfold on tv’s wheeled into their high school and middle school classrooms. Like the lost generation, millennials witnessed large scale, meaningless, and horrific death at a young age. Nearing adulthood themselves, it became clear that the conflict to follow would undoubtedly change the course of their lives forever. Chatila (n.d.) explains, “Growing up in a period of war has left both generations disillusioned from society, with nearly 64% of millennials believing that you cannot be trusting when dealing with people [Kohut, Taylor and Keeter 113]” (The Lost Generation and Millennials)

            In addition to war, both the lost generation and millennials came of age during periods of economic uncertainty. For the lost generation it was the Great Depression, and for millennials it was the Great Recession (the second worst economic period in history, behind the Great Depression). From 2007 to 2009, unemployment rates skyrocketed, leaving many millennials struggling to find jobs just as they were graduating high school and college (Chatila, n.d.). For those who did attend college, job outcomes were just as (if not more) grim. So many millennials went to college (fun fact: millennials are the most highly educated generation in history), that the value of their degrees decreased. millennials quickly realized that their parents and teachers had been wrong, a college degree wouldn’t ensure them a prosperous future, especially if all of their peers also had a degree. To summarize, “Growing up during a period of wartime along with economic depression has caused millennials to lose their sense of youth and innocence just as the lost generation did” (Chatila, n.d.).

            It was previously discussed that after World War I the lost generation began to stray away from the traditional values they had been taught during their adolescence. Similar comparisons can be made about millennials. The lost generation reversed stereotypical gender roles. When the war broke out, many women found themselves taking jobs that had previously been male-dominated. And while most of these women were forced out of these positions at the war’s conclusion, it marked the point at which women began to display greater independence and have career ambitions of their own. Additionally, “In the post war era, the chivalric notions of warfare were destroyed, and the traditional image of masculinity got a severe blow” (Jha, 2020). Millennials on the other hand, have challenged and questioned gender roles and norms. Many millennials have found traditional gender notions to be constricting. In fact, according to a 2013 study, six out of ten millennials said that “…men and women do not need to conform to traditional gender roles or behaviors anymore”, instead, they view gender as a spectrum in which they can express themselves (Kott, 2014). Like the lost generation, millennials have also become detached from religion, with four out of ten millennials now saying they are religiously unaffiliated, and are almost as likely to claim no religion as they are to identify as Christian (Cox & DeVeaux, 2019).

            Other similarities between these two generations include an overwhelming desire to travel. The core of lost generation writers and poets, like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, E.E. Cummings, and many others felt alienated by the culture in United States in the aftermath of the war, and famously chose Paris to be the center of their literary pursuits. While millennials are not necessarily expatriates, they too “…seek traveling to increase their experiences and to escape their current situations” (Chatila, n.d.). In fact, millennials have made travel a priority in their lives. According to a 2019 report from AARP, the average millennial planned on talking approximately five trips throughout the year, with three of those trips being international. Compared to previous generations, that’s more international travel than Generation X and more travel overall than the Baby Boomer generation (Leonhardt, 2019).

            While often described as cynical, critical, and pessimistic, the “lost” in lost generation is a misnomer, especially when you consider how their literature, art, and entertainment have become so ubiquitous and deeply ingrained in cultures around the world (Brown, 2020). In comparison, Millennials for years have also been negatively characterized as cynical, but also as entitled, narcissistic, and self-obsessed. Yet, like the generation that came a century before them, what millennials will leave behind will take precedence over the labels they’ve been given. However, for millennials, I believe their ability to harness and transform the technological landscape of our world will be their lasting legacy. As the first generation of “digital natives” (meaning those born into a technological world), millennials have changed how we interact with others, how we work, how we make and spend money, the media we consume and how we consume it. “No other generation could count on earning any kind of salary (let alone six or seven figures) by simply unboxing a phone, playing a video game, offering makeup tutorials or lip-syncing” (Brown, 2020).

                With all of the negative connotations that come with their names, it’s no wonder why both generations rejected them. Hemingway did not endorse Gertrude Stein’s assertion that his generation was “lost”. In his memoir, A Moveable Feast, his disapproval was well understood, “I thought of Miss Stein…and egotism and mental laziness versus discipline and I thought who is calling who a lost generation?… I will do my best to serve her and see she gets justice for the good work she had done as long as I can… but the hell with her lost-generation talk and all the dirty, easy labels (Hemmingway, 35-36)” (Chatila, n.d.). Many millennials have also rejected their generational identity, with the Pew Research Center claiming that just forty percent of individuals in the cohort identify with the term “millennial” (Most Millennials Resist the ‘Millennial’ Label, 2015). Rejecting their negative labels reveals one final similarity between these generations: Hope. Despite the harrowing events and circumstances that characterized their early lives, both generations refused to give up some semblance of optimism for a better future. For example, more than two-thirds of millennials state that they are not currently making enough money to live the way they would want. Yet, nearly ninety percent of them believe that one day they will (Chatila, n.d). Though, I believe lost generation and millennial optimism is best described through a passage found at the end of The Great Gatsby in which the narrator says, “Gatsby believed in the green light… that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (Longley, 2020). For the lost generation and millennials, the green light was, and is their desired futures, and even though it’s slipping away, they still continue to believe that “one fine day” they will achieve their goals.


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