The Greatest Generation are those who lived through two of the most catastrophic periods in the last one hundred years. They endured through the Great Depression that started in 1929. That was the deepest and most widespread economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world. Then the Second World War claimed some 80 million lives, and it continued to torment its survivors.
They are called the Greatest Generation because despite these despairing events, they rebuilt their societies. Through their engagement, the world over began to flourish again, better than the world that existed before.
This generation is now moving on due to age, and sadly also succumbing to COVID, which elevates mortality among elders.
This generation yearns to pass the torch to a new generation, for now is a time when there is need to renew the societies they built. The expectation is high—indeed, it is a duty—to honor their achievements, to build a world even better than the one before.
We are all able to fulfill this task to which we are entrusted, through each of our own individual skills, because there is so much to do, across so many domains.
As I wrote in the early stage of this pandemic, while COVID-19 can be described as a war, this is just one event among others—economic, social, and environmental—whose confluence are initiating another large scale change in the world order and in the direction of societies.
As I study what this better world means, I will share my evolving ideas in future posts, with a focus on the spirit of scientific discovery and its application being in the form of technology and entrepreneurship.
For now, I can share what the expression of this spirit is like in the former Greatest Generation and in the next one.
An example from the Greatest Generation
My first ever overseas travel was in 2004, when I took an overnight flight to Munich. Seated next to me was a German-Canadian retiree. He spent half the flight time telling me about his life story, which I never forgot.
He was a teenager in Germany when the Second World War ended. He and his three teenaged buddies all decided to leave Germany, because “the country was in ashes” when the war ended. On the appointed day, all of his friends lost their nerve to follow through. He left Germany alone. He arrived in Canada with the proverbial ten dollars in his pocket.
On his second day in his new country, someone asked him if he needed a job. This led to his first job working on the docks. He met his wife, another young German immigrant, at a dance. He was trained in Germany to be an arborist. He eventually became a gardener for the University of Toronto, where he worked until his retirement.
Their son studied economics in university and joined the foreign service. This son met his wife during his posting in Japan and they started their own family. So he was now also a grandfather.
This is not some “Top 20 Under 20” story whose futures are exclusive to the very few. It is far better than that. He had the courage to embark on a journey based on faith in his own ability and in his belief in the future. He became a good husband and father and grandfather and community member, and also cared for thousands of plants. Even while retired, he spoke with indelible enthusiasm and optimism which impressed upon me that he had done all of this. His character was foundational to the achievements of the Greatest Generation, and this character is possible within all of us.
An example from the next Greatest Generation
I met him when he was an intern for a company called Dr Reddy’s Laboratories. He had just finished his engineering degree. He was learning about patient-centric design at the company’s design studio in Mumbai.
He travelled on his own within Mumbai and Chennai, meeting up with medical representatives in the field, to interview pediatric oncologists.
He shared his observations over the speaker phone. He described how often he saw parents crying as they learned of their child’s cancer diagnosis. Their sick children, often less than five years old, seeing their parents leave the doctor’s office, would ask their parents so innocently about why they were so stricken.
This intern expressed the clinical experiences well, yet he also articulated the human side well. As I listened half a world away, he was also able to convey a grief that would bridge eternity.
He has since chosen to continue working on human-centered healthcare, a most meaningful purpose. He asked me to write reference letters for him to top design schools in the United States.
Early this spring, I was happy to hear that he was accepted to Stanford University. Then I worried about whether he would be able to enroll. Schools were closing around the world in response to SARS-CoV-2. Then, after more months, I heard from him again.
Amidst a global pandemic and international flight cancellations and consulates unable to issue visas and a presidential order threatening to close the U.S. border to foreign students, he made it to Stanford!
I can only imagine the adversity he faced to overcome these obstacles. His experience felt like the present-day version of closed borders and restricted movement and the adversity faced by the Greatest Generation in their times.
It is always a time-consuming hassle to write reference letters, and indeed to respond with sincerity when anyone reaches out for help. I am glad I made that effort. To answer the call of the Greatest Generation, we also have to uplift our next Greatest Generation. For the endeavors that lay before us, whenever someone asks if I can help: yes, a thousand times over.