“I wasn’t around for Y2K. Was it like this?”
The question was posed to me by a young man named Jeremy — about 18 or 19 — who brought the online order of groceries to my car. He had just been telling me how store employees had been scrambling to stay ahead of items people were starting to hoard. He shook his head, unable to wrap it around everyone's panic. He was trying to relate it to something that could serve as a baseline.
My initial reaction to his question was to laugh. Y2K was a nothingburger. We panicked, we nervously rang in the new year of 2000, and then we laughed sheepishly and went on with life.
This is different -- on so many levels. I told that to Jeremy: “I have been around for almost 60 years. I have never experienced anything like this before.”
I’ve been thinking about that conversation a lot since. In Jeremy’s short time here on the planet, he has probably never experienced true hardship. But then, neither have I. Not really. Not like what we’re about to experience.
If you were to plot a trendline of my life over the last six decades, it would overwhelmingly be up and to the right. Sure, there were blips. But it’s been a pretty damned good 60 years. For me, hardship has been defined by putting off a trip because I couldn’t afford it. Or buying a used car when I wanted a new one. Poor me.
While writing this post, I tried to find some formula to put magnitude of significance to events like this. I couldn’t find one, so I made my own:
Personal Impact X Number of People Impacted X Duration of Impact
In the summer of 2016, The Pew Research Center asked Americans to rank the most significant events of their lifetimes. If we just look at those events that were negative, they were 9/11 (by a significant margin), the JFK assassination and the Vietnam War.
But now let’s attempt to quantify the magnitude of significance. When I say personal impact, I’m not talking about emotional impact. I’m talking about material impacts on my life directly attributable to the event.
My heart broke on 9/11, just like all of yours. That day would change my perspective on many things. But in real terms, it didn’t shift my life in any significant ways. There was tightened security when I traveled, but that was about it.
This in no way minimizes the tragedy of the event. I know it was excruciatingly real for some of you reading this. I’m just putting it in perspective for myself.
The COVID-19 crisis will be different. There is a shit-ton of uncertainty about what lies ahead, but I’m pretty sure all our lives are going to change significantly for the next 18 months to two years at least. And it will impact everyone in the world.
The vast majority of us have never been through anything like this before -- but others have. In fact, a whole generation has. Unfortunately, none of them are around to talk to. They were called the Lost Generation.
My grandfather was part of this generation. Officially, those belonging to the Lost Generation were born between 1883 and 1900. Charles Edward Hotchkiss was born in Herefordshire, England in 1888. He died in Ontario, Canada in 1955, at the age of 67. He was just eight years older than I am today. Given what we’re going through currently, it's useful to consider what “Charlie” experienced in his lifetime.
In 1910, he boarded the SS Lake Champlain in Liverpool and came to Canada. He was 21. Four years later, he volunteered for service in World War I. In the next four years, 9 million soldiers would die, 21 million would be wounded (my grandfather was one of them), and 7 million would be left permanently disabled. Ten million civilians also died.
Those numbers are staggering, but an even deadlier and more significant event was just
getting started in 1917. Today, we remember it as the Spanish Flu --
but that is a misnomer. It was called that because early reporting of the severity of the influenza pandemic was censored in wartime Europe for fear that troops would panic and desert.
The only country where reporting was somewhat accurate was in neutral Spain, which led to the mistaken notion that the impact was worse there than anywhere else. By the time the epidemic subsided in 1920, somewhere between 50 million and 100 million people would die. It had infected 500 million people, a quarter of the world’s population.
This was the reality newly discharged Charlie came back to when he stepped off the boat in Halifax on September 14, 1919. He was 31.
Charlie married my grandmother, Rose, in 1926. Three years later, the world slipped into the Great Depression. Half of all banks in the U.S. failed. Unemployment spiked to 25%. International trade collapsed by 65%. Millions became homeless migrants. And it would continue like this for the next 10 years. In the middle of all this -- in 1935 -- Charlie and Rose had a baby. It was my father, William Francis Hotchkiss.
When my dad was just four, World War II started. My grandfather, who was 50, was too old to actively serve, but the impact of the war was still immense on Rose, William and Charlie. Over the next six years, 100 million people from more than 30 countries would be directly affected. It's estimated that 20 million military personnel and 40 million civilians died in those years.
These events, any one of which would be staggering to us, were packed into just three decades. I tried to imagine myself going through all that from 1990 to today. I couldn’t.
Sometimes, when you can’t see forward, it’s helpful to look back. When I did that, I realized we’re a pretty resilient species. The Lost Generation laid the foundation for the world we live in today. They weathered storm after storm after storm. They made it through. They raised families, started businesses and survived.
It will get hard for us. Really hard. It’s a definition of hardship many of us will be dealing with for the first time in our lives. But we go into this with technological and societal advantages the Lost Generation never had or could even dream of. We should be able to do this without falling apart.
We come from good stock.