The story of Nick Alkemade, a RAF sergeant during World War II, may be familiar, yet it never fails to impress. In March 1944, a few weeks before D-Day, his plane departed on a mission to shell Berlin. The mission was carried out, but on the return flight his squadron was attacked by a fleet of German Junker fighter planes. It was common knowledge how vulnerable the RAF bombers were against the agile German fighter planes, which wrecked havoc on the 115th Squadron of the Royal Air Force.
As a result of this attack, Nick’s plane caught fire, and our sergeant had to choose between two certain deaths: leaping into the void (his parachute had burnt) or burn to death inside the fuselage of his plane. He quickly chose the first option and jumped from a height of 6,000 meters.
As what often happens in these cases, Nick rapidly lost consciousness. He awoke on a 46-centimeter bed of snow, with a mere twisted ankle. The attack took place in the Ruhr Valley, where two things abound in the month of March: thick fir trees and snow. He became a legend among the camp prisoners and was finally able to return to his native England, where he continued his work at a chemical plant. He passed away at home in 1987.
There are hundreds of stories like this one. Perhaps not quite as spectacular, but nonetheless hugely impactful in their severity, in the limits to which they pushed their protagonists. Those who lived in World War II battle camps formed a generation that, although decimated by the conflict, embarked on the immense undertaking of rebuilding their countries. They are known as “The Greatest Generation” for a reason. They were the parents of “baby boomers” and grandparents/great-grandparents of subsequent the Generations X and Y, the latter also known as “Generation Facebook” or “Millennials.
A generation is explained by looking primarily at the events that shaped it, as well as those of prior generations. In the end, we are all, to some extent, children of the stimuli that we have received. In the case of the generation that bled on the beaches of Normandy, it’s easy to see what shaped it: the Great Depression, World War II and post-war reconstruction. And you can understand the sort of education that they passed on to their successors, the baby boomers.
This generation learned a lesson fast: if you want something in life, you have to fight tooth and nail for it. Nothing in life is free, and anything that’s worthwhile requires effort. Their parents had spent their adolescence and youth in combat, and had little tolerance for nonsense. Perhaps that’s why they reacted with a certain “recoil effect”: May 1968, the hippie movement, Woodstock…. It is interesting to note that years later, this generation applied the lessons handed down from their parents and worked with the same intensity as they had during the protests of their youth.
They didn’t fare too poorly, propelled by a period of economic prosperity that was unknown in history. They worked hard, but for many the results overwhelmingly surpassed expectations. It is worth recalling a simple formula that “models” our satisfaction in life.
Satisfaction = Reality – Expectations
This formula is interesting in its simplicity, yet at the same time profound. Through reality, we perceive what is really happening, what is true; and expectations reflect the pretense of “what was supposed to happen.” If reality exceeds expectations, satisfaction is high. In the case of baby boomers and Generation X members (those born between 1960-70), reality (in professional/economic success terms) was generally much higher than expected.
These are two of the key aspects that fostered the environment in which the next generation was raised, as we will see in the next articles. Understanding a generation implies, in the first place, the task of putting it into its proper context. Despite what many articles have propagated, Generation Facebook didn’t come out of nowhere. Its main characteristics were inherited, already present (latently or manifestly) in previous generations. The Millennials simply “soaked them up.” As we will see, the main inter-generational differences arise more from an environment (technological and sociological) in constant evolution and by the misnamed welfare state.