BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Republic or Democracy, let's at least agree on the gerontocratic nature of our government. Most of our leaders are old. Our fourth boomer president, Donald Trump, leads a succession that includes young Mike Pence, 61, Nancy Pelosi 80, and the 87 year old Chuck Grassley. Meanwhile, 77 year old Joe Biden is challenging the boomers protracted grip on the White House. If elected, he'd become the first president from the generation born between 1929 and 1945. That cohort, which includes so many members of the governing elite, was long ago dubbed the Silent One. It wasn't a compliment. And sociologist Elwood Carlson says it was also dead wrong.
ELWOOD CARLSON There's a lot of famous, noisy people in the so-called silent generation, great civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King and John Lewis. So is Elvis Presley. Sandra Day O'Connor. One thing, they were not is silent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You thought that silence referred to a belief of their elders that the generation was politically inert, something that has been applied to practically every generation in a particular time in their lives.
ELWOOD CARLSON Voting has always been lower among young people and rises with age. That's what we might call an age effect rather than a generational effect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is a common confusion.
ELWOOD CARLSON Well, if you want to sort out what's truly generational and what's not trying to imagine a grid of rows and columns. Each row you could think of as a stage of life from childhood in the bottom row to old age in the top row. And looking across this grid, each column shows a separate historical period, like the Great Depression of the 1930s. If you put you or me down on the bottom line of this grid when we're born, we each follow a straight diagonal up through this grid. Glen Elder wrote a famous book about one such group, he called it Children of the Great Depression. There's something about that childhood had a lasting impression on those kids. That something would be generational.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And so there were things that all young people do, and then there were things that characterize a generation.
ELWOOD CARLSON Elder found lasting effects among what he called the children of the Great Depression. The people who were born during the 1930s, that whole generation has been lost and ignored. In between all of our attention to the greatest generation who fought World War two and the baby boom which came after World War Two. Partly it's been ignored because it was small. It was the first generation in American history ever that was smaller than the generation that came before it. They were not joined by very many immigrants either, because in the 1920s we slammed the door on immigration and shut it off and we kept it off for half a century.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Just for clarity, the greatest generation was born from about 1910 to 1929, right? The silent generation from 29 to 45. So you gave Biden's generation, this tiny generation, its own nickname after having studied its lifelong characteristics.
ELWOOD CARLSON I called them the lucky few. Now, that may seem a little improbable if you look at them at first, because when they were children, they were living through the Depression and the Second World War. They saw some hardships, they learned some caution. But as soon as they started coming out of high school, they were on the gravy train and they have been on the gravy train ever since.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Would you describe the gravy train?
ELWOOD CARLSON Well, the economy was booming in the postwar years. The companies looked around for people to hire and they saw the smallest generation of the century. What happens when you have a shortage of people and a demand for them that's growing very rapidly. The price you pay for them goes up. The employment rate for them was above 90 percent. For the boomers, a generation later, it was in the low 80s. People got raises, people got promotions, so they got married right out of high school and they started having babies and they produced the baby boom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So this is the longest continuous economic boom in American history. I'm just wondering, though, how about black Americans? Could black Americans coming of age during the mid 20th century have been among the lucky few?
ELWOOD CARLSON There is a lucky few generation among black Americans, but they were not as lucky as white Americans, obviously. During those years, the opportunities that began to open up made black Americans luckier than in previous generations. And in some ways luckier than black Americans in some subsequent generations. But they had to fight for it. It's no accident that most of the leaders of the civil rights movement were lucky few. It's also no accident that the heart of the Great Migration, the people who left the South and moved to the northern industrial cities and went to work in the factories of General Motors and United States Steel. It's no accident that they were in the lucky few either.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've said that the lucky few carry within them, despite so much of the bounty that they were able to enjoy an ethic of scarcity and of precariousness.
ELWOOD CARLSON When Glen Elder studied the children of the Great Depression, he noticed that they were deeply affected when so many of their fathers lost their jobs. And when some of these families were actually kicked out of their homes and found themselves living in their cars and living on the streets. These were children who were marked by that experience. But these children saw their parents lose their jobs and then get them back again. And so they took away from that the message of precariousness. But if you are resilient, you can come out of it all right. Years later, they were optimistic about their own lives. They didn't get depressed by what happened to their parents. They learned from it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So Biden is a relatively young member of his fellow lucky few. Donald Trump is an old boomer. What do you take from them straddling those lines? And how seriously should we take those divisions?
ELWOOD CARLSON Probably they're closer to each other in many ways than they are to the average person in their generation. They don't share backgrounds of coming from the same kind of position in society, but they do share some historical experiences. They share the postwar economic climate. They followed very different career paths. But the context that they experienced would be familiar. Each of them would recognize some things about the other person's life. Now, there'd be a lot of other things they didn't recognize.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But isn't the idea that elements that characterize a generation are manifested in the choices they make and the way they view the world? But I don't see any resemblance between the way these two candidates view the world.
ELWOOD CARLSON They don't see the world the same way, but they have some similarities. They both grew up at a time when almost all the other children around them were native born Americans. Neither one of them has that much experience with lots of immigrants in their personal lives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And what they do with that lack of experience. Well, therein hangs a tale.
ELWOOD CARLSON That comes from other things about their backgrounds, that's not generational. There's more to life than generations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We're talking about the lucky few, and I would love to have your thoughts on the concept of luck. Whole libraries of data show that the color you are, obviously, the last name you have, the zip code you live in, the people your parents know, or a random encounter in your life can change absolutely everything about its outcome. That no matter how smart you are, how hard you work, you might not be able to surmount an avalanche of bad luck. And no matter how dim witted or feckless you are, the good luck of, say, the circumstances of your birth can still see you through.
ELWOOD CARLSON Well, when I attach the label of lucky few to these people, I wasn't thinking about roulette wheels spinning. I was thinking about the good fortune that accrued to these people systematically because they were so few, because they had less competition to rise during a period when a lot of the wealth and inequality in American society had been destroyed by decades of war and depression. We had a golden age in the middle of the 20th century of low inequality, rapid economic expansion, and into that golden age walked the first generation smaller than the one before it. Now, that's not a roulette wheel that systematically good fortune. But Glen Elder was right that those kids who experienced the depression and the war when they were little and then all of a sudden saw all the flowers coming out, took hold of that. And they created corporate America. They really did. From little or nothing, the number of corporations in the United States follows an exponentially increasing curve. If it keeps on going, there'll be more corporations than people sometime in this century. That curbs started up with them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A towering achievement, but it's left us with gob smacking inequality.
ELWOOD CARLSON In every way we can think of, And it's separating people from each other.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's the legacy of the very creative, very enterprising and clever lucky few.
ELWOOD CARLSON That's our karma.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
ELWOOD CARLSON You're very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Elwood Carlson is the Charles Nam professor in sociology of population at Florida State University and the author of The Lucky Few: Between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom.