One of my favorite stories about my dad is how he, at 12 or 13-years-old, became a paper delivery boy. The newspaper manager took my dad and his younger brother with him door-to-door soliciting to increase subscriptions. The manager would say to them, “Okay, scuff up your clothes with a little dirt. When the person answers the door, stare off in the distance like you’re blind.” When people answered their doors, the manager told them they would be contributing to St. Anthony’s Home for Orphans by subscribing to the newspaper. My dad always belly laughs when he says, “We had the highest subscription rate in our unit!” In fact, they did so well, they won a trip to Washington, D.C., where about 15-20 twelve-to-sixteen-year-olds were put up in a hotel. They had a water fight that spanned that entire floor of the hotel, soaking the carpet. Someone also called the police because the boys were throwing pillows out of their windows onto passersby on the street. Can you imagine this happening today?
I never tire of hearing the story from my dad; it’s one of my favorites. When I visit him, I try to learn more about who he was as a child. I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of past generations because they illuminate how much things have changed. It was such a different world, and people seemed tougher and more mature. One word typically comes to my mind when I think about my predecessors: fortitude.
Let me explain what I mean. Over lunch one day, my friend’s mother, who is in her 70s, shared about her father and grandfather. As a stalwart Pennsylvania Dutchman, her grandfather ran a full farm, all the while missing a hand! At one point in her childhood, her father was ill and couldn’t work. The local grocer not only allowed her mother to buy groceries on credit, he often gave her the prime cut of meat. When her father was well enough to work again, he was willing to take several jobs until he paid it all back. His reputation was important to him, and he didn’t want to seem like someone who didn’t care about his obligations.
My husband’s grandfather is another amazing person I like to hear about. He fought in the Korean War in his early twenties but spoke very little about his experience. When he returned from the war, he bought land and built his own home (and still lives there today). He started his own successful surveying business, which enabled him to buy two vacation homes and a boat all the while raising a family of six children. He also earned his private pilot’s license and owned his own plane.
Even my dad had a full-time job at 19 and married by 24. He did not go to college, but still, he supported a family of 16 by managing the meat department at a supermarket.
You see what I mean? Do you know anyone who would build their own home, marry and raise a family at 20-years-old?
I’ve observed that every generation seems to grumble about the ones that follow in a condescending manner as if their generation is somehow better. This probably means I’m getting old, but I catch myself doing it too.
You know the comments I’m talking about:
- “We used to play outside all day, but all kids spend their time inside and playing video games!”
- “They don’t know the value of hard work.”
- Here’s one my dad’s been saying since the 90’s, referencing his days as a cashier “We used to add up the totals in our heads. Nowadays, kids need to use a calculator!”
Millennials, in particular, have taken a beating over the past several years for being ‘entitled’ and ‘lazy.’ Older coworkers complain they have too high expectations for career advancement and personal fulfillment. (Really, what’s so wrong with that?)
But is it healthy to yearn for the past? Disparage our youth? Aren’t they just a result of our parenting and societal influence?
It’s true that life in many ways is more comfortable than it was before. Looking back to the early colonial period in the U.S., labor was manually intensive and arduous. I believe inventors were (and still are) motivated by the quest to make life easier and more efficient. And that’s what happened; life has become progressively better each generation because of innovations in technology, medicine, and science.
So, perhaps we do lose fortitude with each passing generation, but each has its own struggles. Today’s youth (children as young as eight!) suffer from anxiety & depression more than previous generations. There’s the burden to be involved in activities and to perform well both academically and athletically. They are accessing inappropriate material at unprecedented levels through smartphones. They encounter peer pressure and bullying through social media.
So, instead of complaining about our youth, can we look for opportunities to instill our values that transcend these generational differences? I think so. In fact, I believe it’s our responsibility to teach those younger than us by example. They need us.
We do it by spending time with them, listening to their struggles, and understanding who they are as individuals. Then, and only then, will they be receptive to our wisdom. Perhaps they will be just as fascinated with our stories and admire what we have been through. And one day, they will do the same with the generation that follows them.