The Greatest Generation and the Stunted Generation

The D-Day commemorations this past week put me in mind of my father, who got a very raw deal in the Depression and World War II, whose son got the opportunities that his generation strived for, and whose great-grandchildren are at risk of being the stunted generation.

My dad, Pfc. Arthur Kuttner, was drafted. He served in the 28th Infantry Division as a machine gunner, landed at Normandy, fought across France, and was with the wave of GIs who liberated Paris. Then, as the winter of 1944 approached, they sent his division to a quiet corner well behind the lines for some well earned R&R -- the Ardennes on the border of Belgium and Luxembourg.

But the Nazis had one last trick to try, the ferocious surprise offensive of December 16, 1944, in which 30 German divisions pushed a great bulge in the Allied lines. In the ensuing Battle of the Bulge, my dad was captured at Bastogne, and spent the last six months of the war in a bleak prison camp, Stalag 4B, in the far east of Germany.

The POWs were shipped across Germany in the dead of winter in unheated boxcars. His feet literally froze and he would have lost them but for the luck of having been in a POW camp with some British medics. The main food served the prisoners was potato peelings.

When the Soviets liberated the camp in May 1945, they held the American GI's as bargaining counters. After several days, my dad and a few other guys dared their Russian captors to shoot them, walked out of the camp, stole bicycles and pedaled across ruined German towns to the American lines on the Elbe.

I just can't imagine any of it. He was the gentlest of souls, and I know these stories from my mother. My dad wouldn't talk about it.

Many GI's had a much worse war than my dad did. He came home.

But there is a storybook quality to his generation -- the misery of the Depression, the valor of the War, the sweet victory, and the immense opportunities for vets and other regular Americans in the postwar period. There has been nothing like it since.

Mine was the generation that he pinned his hopes on, and we got to go to decent public schools, affordable colleges, and entered the job market during a boom. We almost fell upwards.

Mostly, this was not because of the special generosity of the country to World War II vets, or because of a uniquely high period of economic growth. During the years when my dad was back from the war and I was a kid, opportunity was widely shared. The nation had a functioning social contract. Working- and middle-class Americans got a fair share of the total national product, thanks to laws and norms that were the legacy of the New Deal.

I think of my dad's hopes and struggles when I consider the lives of my kids and grandkids. By the time my own kids were entering college and the job market, society was already offering far less than it offered the returned World War vets and their children.

My own kids have had a decent shot, mostly because of their own talent and hard work, and partly because I earned enough to help give them a head start. But not everybody's kids. Young adults from a lower-middle-class background like my father's have not gotten the breaks that he got after the war.

And then I think of my grandchildren's generation. What will college cost? Where will be the opportunities for affordable housing and middle-class jobs sufficient to raise a family? God help the kids who can't benefit from a family welfare state.

The opportunities for my generation had not much to do with the average productivity of the economy -- which increased almost as fast in recent years as during the postwar boom. But unlike in the postwar era, almost all of the gains have gone to the very top while the opportunity ladders were kicked away for the rest.

Our society is at least four times as rich as it was when my dad came home from the war. Far too much of that national wealth is going to the wrong people -- bankers and speculators who not only don't earn their wealth but who caused a great recession for everyone else.

My dad didn't go to college; he was the first member of his family to own a house thanks to the GI bill (no housing scandals of that era -- these were direct government loans), and he was part of a rising, hard-working middle class.

My kids and grandkids didn't suffer the Great Depression, nor did they have to slog across Normandy or serve time in a German POW camp. But they face a stunted future. My father's generation did not make their sacrifices only so that their great-grandchildren would be the stunted generation.

Robert Kuttner's recent book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos, and teaches at Brandeis University's Heller School.