As we prepare to celebrate another Memorial Day, I can not help but reflect about the fundamental differences between my father’s generation and mine. Dad was part of what Tom Brokaw dubbed “the Greatest Generation,” so aptly named for their quiet accomplishments on the battlefields of World War II. Clearly they earned the moniker through their audacious achievements, so humbly understated.
But their wartime achievement is not the biggest differentiator between their generation and ours. We have witnessed incredible valor on the part of our soldiers in each successive war since. No, I believe that it is in the workplace where the starkest contrast between the greatest generation and ours exists.
Perhaps the most significant contrast lies in how they managed job stress. For one thing, their jobs played a fundamentally different role in their lives, generically encapsulated under the title “work.” By and large, they did not expect to achieve fulfillment or self-actualization through their jobs. They did not seek to define themselves through their career achievement. No, their sights were set lower, down the hierarchy of needs in the physiological and safety realms (i.e. food on the table and a roof over their family’s heads).
Can you blame them? Many of them never expected to live long enough to return home. They witnessed carnage on a global scale. They already achieved a sort of self-actualization through the mere act of survival. To get back home alive was a gift for the ages. Everything else became trivial, including how they earned a living.
They also understood what it meant to be part of a community. Bonds established in wartime, were replaced by bonds established on the block, at the bowling alley or in the beer garden. They enjoyed an intimate connectedness with others in their community that only exists vestigially today. Their support groups were varied and numerous.
Alas, events conspired to mold a different context for later generations. The most significant of these context changes was the rise of the suburb as the aspirational model for family life. Neighborhood connections were slowly replaced with plots of grass separated by walls. Connecting cords became more strained and separated as the model took hold. Add to this, the rise of global competition, the loss of high paying manufacturing jobs and the slow unwind of job security, and the stage was set for a different type of work experience.
“Jobs” slowly morphed into “careers.” Hours increased and security decreased. Relationships at work became more important as other connections atrophied in the loneliness of the suburban landscape. In short, our work began to define us in ways that it never did for the greatest generation. With this increase in at-stakeness, stress was sure to follow.
So what can we do about it? We can not roll back the clock to those simpler times (at least not without Marty McFly’s DeLorean). We can wait for a hopeful societal shift back to community, but we’ll probably be dead before it happens. But there are a few things we can do.
Start by relaxing a bit. There is an epidemic of paranoia in the workplace in this current economic landscape. You can not play your “a game” when you are stressed out. Take a deep breath, turn off your Blackberry for 30 minutes and ignore your e-mail. Us the 30 minute time-out to gather your thoughts and consider your situation. Think about the perspective builder that the greatest generation enjoyed. Real life and death, not the pretend sort that is conjured up in your head in response to the demands of your job.
Make some real friends, outside of the “as long as we work together” friends on the job. We are meant for community. Real friends know the real you. Their friendship is unconditional. They will be there for you long after your current job, company and career.
So this Memorial Day remember the lessons from the greatest generation. Consider for a moment that their simpler view might just have been a better one.