Mark Shields: Exceptionally good luck

By Mark Shields

After enduring lavish praise while receiving an award before a big Hollywood dinner crowd, Jack Benny expertly deflected all the fawning with these words: “I don’t deserve this honor, but then I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that, either.”

Jack Benny’s one-liner reminds us that so much of life is a roll of the dice over which even the most self-satisfied of “self-made men” (you know, the type Disraeli identified as “very much in love with his creator”) have next to no control.

We all acknowledge that none of us chooses our race, nationality, gender or parents. To have been born a white, American male between 1929-1945 was, believe me, to win the lottery. Scholars even have a name for my generation. They called us the “Lucky Few.” Because of the low birthrate during the Great Depression and World War II, we were the first American generation smaller than the one before it, which, of course, was the deservedly heralded “Greatest Generation.”

Because of the Depression, which led many educated males seeking work into the classrooms, and because of unenlightened social attitudes that essentially limited the professional opportunities of the nation’s smartest women to either nursing or teaching, we, as children, were taught by remarkably talented and accomplished public school teachers. Because the GI Bill enabling returning WWII veterans to go to college, universities expanded to meet the increased demand. This meant that by the time the vets had graduated and our smaller generation finished high school, the colleges were almost begging for enrollees. A 1950s male high school grad — who wasn’t under indictment or detox — was all but guaranteed college admission.

The share of the male population of the Lucky Few generation, who graduated from college, doubled over the national rate. This is not, let me emphasize, because we were smarter or more conscientious than those who had preceded us. No — it is only because we just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Let it also be noted the enormous good fortune my generation had by being born into and growing up in time of the most stable, intact, two-parent families the country has known.

Yes, we did have the obligation of military service through the draft, which resulted in the great majority of my generation’s males serving. But unlike the Greatest Generation before us, we did not suffer the same volume of casualties, because most of our time in uniform was in peacetime.

By the time school and service were completed and we went looking for work, the U.S. economy was booming in a post-war economic expansion and employers were hiring. But because the demand for workers was so strong, and because we were so few, wages went up and in many cases included pensions with defined benefits. By 1969, nearly 95 percent of the males in my generation held a paying job. That remains the highest employment rate ever for any generation in the entire century.

So when any of us geezers in my crowd gets a little too smug or self-congratulatory about all he’s accomplished, do all of us a favor and remind everyone what lucky SOBs we were to have been born in the USA between 1929-1945.


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