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The Greatest Generation: Birth Years, Characteristics, and History

By  Alison Ensign – June 13, 2020

My parents were members of the Greatest Generation. Dad (William Robert Thompson) was born January 12, 1920, and Mom (June Alice Shook) was born June 8, 1922. They were pen pals during WWII. They were introduced via June’s best friend, Irma. They got married shortly after Dad returned from the Italian front where he and his troops liberated people from the camps. They quickly had Baby Boomers, Bill, Louise and Janet. I’m Janet and the rest is history.


“The Greatest Generation” refers to the generation in the United States that came of age during the Great Depression and later fought in World War II. They are sometimes called the G.I. Generation or the World War II Generation. Did you have family who fought in World War II?

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As a group, this generation persevered through the difficult times brought on by economic stress and war. The result was a generation that knew how to withstand hardship and built a better world because of it. 

What Are the Birth Years of the Greatest Generation?

Members of the Greatest Generation were born in the 1900s to the 1920s. There’s no universal cut-off date, but some sources have defined the Greatest Generation as people born from 1901 to 1927 or 1901 to 1924. 

Their parents were likely part of the Lost Generation. Many also had children in the Baby Boomer generation.

woman in ww2 working on aircraft

Why Are They Called the Greatest Generation?

“The Greatest Generation” got its name from a book by the same name. The book The Greatest Generation was written by Tom Brokaw, a journalist for NBC. In his book, Brokaw explores the stories and characteristics of this generation. The book expresses the belief that this generation is the greatest ever produced by society. In particular, Brokaw admired their desire to do the right thing. 

What Is this Generation Known For?

This generation’s childhood was marked by economic success and technological advancements such as the radio and telephone. This success was in stark contrast with their later years, which were marked by economic turmoil when the Great Depression hit as a result of the 1929 stock market crash. The depression lasted roughly a decade and resulted in a 25 percent unemployment rate. 

In the wake of Pearl Harbor, millions of men enlisted to defend and fight for their country. In their absence, women rose to the occasion to support their country and their families by working in factories and elsewhere. Everyone involved is still remembered for their bravery and sacrifice.

ww2 soldiers in a tank
Credit by National Archives Record Administration

After facing the struggles brought on by war and a struggling economy, the veterans who returned home and their families rebuilt their communities and the economy.

Greatest Generation Characteristics

The economic turmoil of the Great Depression profoundly impacted this generation, leaving its members with the desire to end poverty and create economic opportunities. As a result of their drive, this generation is recognized for their success in later years. 

family portrait from the 1930s, known as producing the "greatest generation"

In part a result of the Great Depression and World War II, this generation developed great resilience in surviving hardship and solving problems. Below are a few characteristics that define the Greatest Generation.

  • Personal Responsibility: The harsh reality of the Great Depression forced many to a higher standard of personal responsibility, even as children.
  • Humility: The Great Depression fostered modesty and humility in many of those who lived through scarcity.
  • Work Ethic: Hard work enabled survival during both the depression and the war. Many jobs at the time were physically demanding, with long hours.
  • Frugality: Saving every penny and every scrap helped families survive through times of shortage. “Use it up, fix it up, make it do, or do without” was a motto of their time.
  • Commitment: One job or one marriage often lasted an entire lifetime.
  • Integrity: People valued honesty and trustworthiness, values fostered by the need to rely on one another.
  • Self-Sacrifice: Millions sacrificed to defend their country or support the war effort from home.

Is Anyone from the Greatest Generation Still Alive?

Today, most surviving members of the Greatest Generation would be over 100 years old, or centenarians. Roughly 75,000–90,000 centenarians are alive in the United States and an estimated 343,000 are still living worldwide. Plus, the youngest members of the Greatest Generation would be in their 90s. 

Many veterans of World War II were part of the Greatest Generation. In the United States, around 300,000–390,000 World War II veterans are still alive.

Long story short, this generation lives on. Keep their stories alive by preserving the memories and photos of your loved ones who lived during this time. FamilySearch Memories lets you record their stories or read the memories that others have shared.

Discover the Greatest Generation

Writer Michael Kelley noted, “Americans knew that to survive they had to depend on their families.” Whether your family members from the Greatest Generation are still alive, their legacy lives on today in your family. Ask your parents or grandparents about them and their families.