The Lucky Few: FSU researcher shines light on forgotten generation

John McCain, Elvis Presley, Gloria Steinem and Martin Luther King Jr. took different paths in life, but they were all lucky.

Elwood Carlson

That’s because they were born between 1929 and 1945, a generation sandwiched between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom that Florida State University Professor Elwood Carlson has dubbed “The Lucky Few.”

“It’s an entire generation that’s been lost in the shuffle, and it’s a generation that’s very different from the one before it and the one after,” said Carlson, the Charles B. Nam Professor in Sociology of Population. “It’s also the first generation that is smaller than the one before it.”

In a new book, “The Lucky Few: Between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom” (Springer), Carlson argues that 41 million Americans who were born during the 16-year period that began with the crash of the stock market and ended with the conclusion of World War II were blessed by the virtue of their comparatively small numbers and the fortunate timing of world events.

Their childhoods were marked by the Great Depression and wartime rations, but by the time members of this generation came of age, the postwar economy was booming, jobs were plentiful and educational opportunities were abundant. The Lucky Few hopped on the gravy train with the explosion of white-collar jobs in the 1950s and continued to ride it right into retirement, Carlson said.

“Because of their childhoods, they had really low expectations,” Carlson said. “But after the war, those tough times evaporated and the reality exceeded their expectations, so they felt really lucky.”

And for good reason. Their transition to adulthood was early, fast and easy. Although a military draft was still in place, most, like Elvis, served in peacetime. They were able to take advantage of veteran’s benefits — such as a college education under the GI Bill — while suffering only a fraction of the casualties of the “Greatest Generation.”

Throughout adulthood, they experienced the longest continuous economic boom in the country. They had the highest employment rates of any generation, and they contributed to the rise of corporate America and its accompanying perks. They pioneered the trend of early retirement.

Their economic success fueled social changes as well, Carlson said. Members of this generation married younger and started families sooner, not because of changing mores, but because they could afford to do it.

Of course, some — namely white men — were luckier than others. But even blacks and women fared better than their counterparts in the generation that preceded them, Carlson said. Their prosperity afforded them opportunities to become trailblazers throughout their lives. Members of this generation traveled to the moon, championed civil rights and saw one of their own — Sandra Day O’Connor — become the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now between the ages of 63 and 79, members of this generation are still on a winning streak, according to Carlson, who at 58 counts himself among the baby boomers.

“They are still fortunate,” he said. “They’re healthier, living longer and retiring earlier while the younger generations pay for their Social Security benefits.”

Carlson said he was inspired to research this generation and its characteristics after requiring his students to read “Birth and Fortune: The Impact of Numbers on Personal Welfare” by Richard Easterlin. Easterlin’s book argues that the number of people born in a generation directly and indirectly affects personal destiny and the economy in general.

While Easterlin used his theory to focus mainly on the negative pressures facing the 78 million baby boomers — unemployment, high crime, marital stress and divorce — Carlson saw an opportunity to explore the positive circumstances that shaped the lives of the first “baby bust” generation in America.

“No matter who you are, you can define yourself as part of a generation,” he said. “The circumstances of your generation may help make sense of the way your life has gone. You can see the broader currents that have shaped your life. The Lucky Few just happened to have a smoother ride.”