In the High Middle Ages, a professor at the University of Paris wrote a diatribe against college students "these days." He moaned that students in his day took their studies more seriously, worked harder, dilly-dallied less. But as he got older, he noticed that his students worked more lackadaisically, focused more on chasing liquor and women, and generally could not have cared less about serious study.
Sound familiar? This is the tune that the old always sing about the young. Entire cottage industries pop up to help the older relate to the younger, as seen in this CBS News piece.
And it gets political, too. Conservative pundits jumped on "Pajama Boy," as the visual image of Obamacare and the Obama young voter. A young man, living at home, spending all morning in his onesie pajamas, sipping expensive coffee that his parents bought. He dreams not of great things, but of how to obtain government services and to keep living off of his parents.
How can such a generation continue to build a great America?
In the spring of 1942, history gets its first glimpse of John Hager Randolph Jr. He is matriculating at Virginia Military Institute, idling away while many in his generation have already gone to war. Randolph writes his parents, as many college students have through the years, begging for more money. He worries about which girl, or girls to date. What stresses him the most is his parents' potential reaction to his grades, nearly all bad.
The letters home from Randolph, collected in the Library of Virginia, show a rapidly maturing young man. He joined the Army Air Corps, trained hard, and earned deployment to the Marianas Islands in April 1945.
Randolph's letters home unpack his anxiety. He worries about flying on dangerous air raids, relating "there's only one thing I don't like about combat - it ain't safe!" But as he gains experience and confidence, anxiety decreases and bravado edges into his letters. In mid May, he proclaims "this is a real Air Mail letter telling the hottest news there is." His parents probably gasped and worried as they read letters written by their son as he returned from highly dangerous raids involving accurate "flak," or anti-aircraft fire.
The Great Depression and the most destructive war ever fought shaped his generation, much like a stagnant economy, Iraq, and Afghanistan shaped the millenials. War and want shaped leaders and hard workers undaunted by the challenges facing the US in the 1950s and 60s. This generation shaped the Reagan prosperity and won the Cold War.
Randolph did not do so badly. After service in World War II and Korea, he became president of a Virginia based savings and loan, later president of the United States Savings and Loan League.
And all this from a man whose thoughts only dwelt on girls, bad grades, and getting money from Mom and Dad.
The prospects for the upcoming Millennials are high. With competition at its keenest, each one must be sharper to succeed. Many already soured on them, but millennials may be the greatest American generation yet.