Every generation throughout history defines itself on the events and shared cultural experiences of the time. A generation is a group of people who were born and age close together. For example, those born in the 80s and 90s are typically considered Millennials, or the first generation to grow with the internet and modern technology.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What is the Lost Generation?
- Characteristics of the Lost Generation
- The Lost Generation in Literature
While today’s social and political climate is quick to shine a light on the most well-known generations of today, there’s one that’s often overlooked from the 20th century. This generation, appropriately named the Lost Generation, is the generation of people who came of age during World War I and the 1920s.
This was a turning point in American technology, society, and culture. An impressive number of leaders, writers, artists, and activists appeared during this generation. Despite the name, the Lost Generation is one of the most important in recent American history. In this guide, we’ll take a trip back through time to uncover the Lost Generation and who was in it.
What is the Lost Generation?
The Lost Generation includes any of the teens and early adults during the 1910s and 1920s. Their experiences were greatly affected by the First World War, economic prosperity, and mistrust for the systems of the past.
History of the Lost Generation
Prior to World War I, Americans felt enormous nationalism and pride. They were confident that democracy and independence would succeed above all.
Everything changed in the trenches of WWI. As the most destructive and deadly war of the time, the young generation serving in this war quickly lost their illusions about democracy and peace.
The end of WWI didn’t bring the structure many young Americans hoped for. Despite the economic prosperity of the 1920s, young people felt cynical about the rigid society of the past. Instead, a new era known as the “Roaring Twenties” took hold of pop culture.
Technological innovations like the telephone and radio changed the social structure and introduced new music like jazz. Women began to push away from gender norms, giving a name to “flapper” culture. African American writers and artists flourished in the Harlem Renaissance, and more voices were heard than ever before. Change was the new normal.
This generation wasn’t literally “lost,” rather, the values of the past were lost. The Lost Generation was mostly made of those who were born from 1883 to 1900. This included those who fought and died in the First World War.
These people would have been in their teens through their thirties during the 1910s and 1920s. They were coming of age at a very pivotal time, and this reflected in their culture. This generation thrived throughout the Roaring Twenties, coming to a halt at the start of the Great Recession.
The Lost Generation had a large impact on American culture. Through this day, many modern Americans distrust democracy and leadership. Wars continue to be a point of conflict in the United States, and the anti-war movement in the 1970s is a direct reflection of the Lost Generation’s sentiments post WWI.
The Lost Generation was also a time for questioning mortality and the meaning of life. Modernism was a popular theme of the art and literature of the time, and this was a symbol of an ongoing existential crisis.
Because the First World War brought such destruction and uncertainty, many people didn’t see the point in worrying about things that simply didn’t matter. People partied, lived in the moment, and defied social norms. These trends continued throughout the 20th century, leading to many of our modern cultural concepts about living.
As one of the most well-known modernist writers, T.S. Eliot captures these feelings in his poem “The Waste Land.” He writes:
“And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
Here, you feel the existential questioning and pain through his language. Eliot reminds us that our shadows are always approaching, and there’s no way to run from our own mortality. Fear is in a “handful of dust,” an allusion to the Christian phrase “all come from dust, and to dust all return.”
Ultimately, death is inevitable, so make the most of the time you have by living on your own terms.
Characteristics of the Lost Generation
What are the unique characteristics of a generation that experienced so much death and change at a young age? It’s understandable that things like one’s family tree and past social norms took a backseat to the newfound modern take on living.
There are three main characteristics that many people in the Lost Generation related to:
- Individualism: In a world where leadership and democracy only ended in destruction, the American Dream changed shape. There was less of an interest in where you’ve been and more of a focus on where you were going and how you could get there — preferably alone.
- Debauchery: The Roaring Twenties earned its name for a reason. Conservative norms of the past were traded in for partying and excitement. Women stepped away from gender roles, wearing shorter dresses, smoking, and partying like everyone else. This was the golden age of having fun and living in the moment.
- Existentialism: With so much war in the past, not many people gave much thought to things like religion, the afterlife, or morality. Since life proved to have little meaning in the trenches of war, why search for meaning now?
These characteristics didn’t completely die as new generations took center stage. They’ve impacted every generation since, and we can still see signs of them in our modern world today.
If you ask senior citizens today about the Lost Generation, these were their grandparents. They’re sure to remember what a wild bunch they were to be around.
The Lost Generation in Literature
You’ll likely recognize a number of names for some of the more well-known members of the Lost Generation. Most of the most widely known American authors, poets, thinkers, and artists are from this generation. This was also a time when African American writers and artists gained a larger voice within society.
Some of the biggest names in the Lost Generation stuck around in the United States during the Harlem Renaissance. Writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston made a name for themselves during this time, and their work is still taught in schools across the country today.
However, many of the writers of the Lost Generation headed to Europe. They found American society too limiting, and Paris was the center of art and culture during the Roaring Twenties.
Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Kay Boyle, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot were all amongst the Lost Generation writers in Paris at the time. They threw wild parties, shared their work, and left an undeniable legacy on literature.
Some of the most well-known Modernist works published during this time were:
- Cane (Jean Tommer)
- Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)
- The Weary Blues (Langston Huges)
- The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Agatha Christie)
- The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
- Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston)
- The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner)
- The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton)
These are reads that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Not only are they a great introduction to some of the finest literature, but they’re also a window into the Lost Generation.
There’s a lot to learn about those who came before us. If the Lost Generation teaches us anything, it’s that sometimes you have to fight the status quo.
Discovering the Lost Generation
While the name implies this generation was “lost” to the First World War, that’s not really it at all. The war did cause a great deal of tragedy, but that’s not where this generation gets its name. The name comes from the Lost Generations’ insistence on shedding the cultural norms of the past.
This was the first generation in modern American history to redefine what it means to come of age and live life fully. Though this generation is no longer around, it’s easy to see embers of this spark in modern life. We still live in a culture of innovation and moving forward. If there’s one thing the Lost Generation teaches, it’s that one should never look back.
While generations each have their moment to shine, nothing lasts forever. The only remedy for existentialism is to prepare. Start end-of-life planning to consider your own legacy. By taking matters into your own hands now, you free yourself to live life fully later.