My grandfather was part of what is now called the "Greatest Generation." And if his life was anywhere close to being representational of his generation, it truly was the greatest. He fought bravely against Nazi Germany--once helping over 40 Ukrainian soldiers escape from the grasp of the brutal and totalitarian Soviet Union--and then returned home to dedicate the last 40 years of his life to public service. His generation was blessed with something that our generation appears to lack: a defining purpose.
Don't get me wrong, Generation X, Y or whatever it is we have been labelled as this week is not a lazy, unmotivated collection of video game junkies, as some would like to believe. It's just that we lack those issues or events that define a generation. The '30s had the depression, the '40s had the war, the '50s brought about the start of the modern era, the '60s had civil rights and peace rallies, the '70s had the sexual revolution. But then the '80s arrived. True, the Berlin Wall did fall, but the legacy of Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney is merely a heightened sense of materialism.
At the beginning of the '90s, it looked like environmentalism would play the dominant role in western politics for the next decade, but it soon turned out to be little more than a fad. Yes, more people now are looking for greener alternatives in their lifestyles, however, the environmental movement never lived up to its potential. Environmentalism was stifled because of the economic recession of the early '90s, which gave birth to our present age of booming stock markets and globalization. The materialism of the '80s returned with a vengeance. Left-leaning activists and the social and religious right both try to present a more complete view of our societal purpose than our present materialistic and hedonistic ways, but these groups are fractured and appear to be making few in-roads.
This begs the question of whether materialism is a noble and emotionally fulfilling enough purpose for our generation, particularly when we look at the focus of generations past. There are examples throughout history of other generations whose focus has been hedonistic and materialistic, of which the most worrying comparison is the ruling class of pre-revolutionary France.
Like the aristocracy, we pay more attention to ourselves than the hardships of those around us; in France it was the peasantry, for us it is the developing world. Human rights violations, absolute poverty, disease and infestation, and corruption are plaguing many developing countries.
The "Greatest Generation" set up the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a frame work to begin dealing with some of these problems, but somewhere along the track the train derailed. If my grandfather was a young man today, I am sure he would be taking on many of these problems. Yet I and too many of my friends find it too tiresome to figure out which clothes are both fashionable and socially responsible.
So here is the question: should we nobly try to do more to help the poor both within our borders, and outside, or should we just tell them to eat cake and wear Gap? Remember, of course, that we are the ones who will be forced to deal with the consequences of these actions a decade from now.