Life and Work Lessons From G.I. Joe at 50

The toy that inspired generations shows why we all must adapt to a changing world

Yet another member of the tail end of the baby boom generation is turning 50 this month.

He’s only 12 inches tall, but he casts a pretty long shadow.

We’re talking about G.I. Joe, the scar-faced little big man of the toy box. He’s a boomer who was the beloved plaything of fellow boomers and the pioneer of a whole new play pattern for boys. Thanks to him, a billion dollar category for the toy industry was launched.

In short, G.I. Joe is the father of the action figure. He also inspires collectors, will soon have a traveling history exhibition based on his life, and has some key lessons to teach grownups about the importance of staying relevant in an ever-changing world.

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Hall of Famer

Star Wars figures? Woody and Buzz Lightyear from the Toy Story movie franchise? They exist because G.I. Joe led the way.

No wonder he’s a member of the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Previewed in the annual toy fair in February 1964, G.I. Joe was Hasbro’s answer to Mattel’s Barbie, but with a difference. Both were large scale figures that could be endlessly accessorized — outfits, purses and a convertible for Barbie and uniforms, weapons and a Jeep for G.I. Joe.

But Barbie was originally cast as a teenage fashion model. G.I. Joe, in contrast, was an everyman, an ordinary Joe modeled on the "Greatest Generation" World War II vets who were the fathers and uncles of the boys who originally received G.I. Joe under the Christmas tree (or the equivalent for those who didn't celebrate that holiday).

(MORE: Your Childhood is Crucial to How You'll Age)

Another revolutionary feature of G.I. Joe: He was fully poseable, with limbs that were more articulated than Barbie's or Ken's.

An Alter Ego and Role Model

Before G.I. Joe, boys played with toy soldiers as armchair generals commanding an army of small, static, anonymous cannon fodder. But G.I. Joe was a toy with a face. He became an alter ego, a role model, a companion to a generation of boys. Hasbro execs never used the D-word (doll), but G.I. Joe was a toy a boy could bond with. But unlike a girl’s doll, G.I. Joe wasn’t a surrogate child. He was a surrogate parent.

“We’ve had people say, ‘I didn’t have a dad. G.I. Joe was my dad,’” said Brian Savage, 52, director of the G.I. Joe Collectors’ Club.

A New Way to Play

The action figure that could be posed in endless variations and provided with gear for everything from parachuting to deep sea diving also triggered a new mode of boy toy play.

“I think it provided a vehicle for the greatest imagination you could have,” said G.I. Joe collector Ace Allgood, 46, of Minneapolis. “You could be an Army guy, you could be an adventurer, you could be anything you wanted to be.”

“I really do give G.I. Joe some credit for my creativity,” said Allgood, who owns a television commercial production company.

But no toy can get to the half-century mark without some ups and downs.

Changing and Adapting

Like all boomers, G.I. Joe was tossed around by the turmoil of the times. Sales of Army toys dropped off as opposition to the Vietnam War mounted by the end of the 1960s.

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“The demise of the military G.I. Joe coincided with the Tet offensive,” Allgood said.

But G.I. Joe — and Hasbro — found that the key to continued success was to be flexible.

G.I. Joe pivoted and changed careers, from being in the service to becoming an adventurer, exploring outer space, deserts and jungles. He captured pygmy gorillas and dug for Egyptian artifacts. He was Indiana Jones before there was an Indiana Jones.

Like fellow boomers, he also ditched the crew cuts, and let his hair grow out with a beard and a fuzzy flocked do.

He took inspiration from hit television shows, sporting a kung fu grip and “atomic” limbs like the Six Million Dollar Man.

When oil embargoes pushed up plastic prices, he shrank to an 8-inch format and then a 3 3/4-inch size, similar to the hit Star Wars action figures.

Seeking Relevance

New enemies were found — terrorists, drug dealers, environmental threats. And in the wave of patriotism generated by two Gulf Wars and the 9/11 attacks, he reembraced his military roots, with collectible G.I. Joes based on everyone from D-Day troops to Colin Powell.

“His occupation has changed as the world has changed,” said Adam Scher, senior curator for the Minnesota Historical Society, which is developing a traveling museum exhibit this year called Toys of the '50s, '60s and '70s.

But the toughest enemy faced by G.I. Joe might be the competition today from all the other action figures he inspired. His response is to continue to adapt to the times with everything from movie tie-ins to fighting zombies to being featured in a line of Lego-like construction block kits called Kre-O.

“He’s still a relevant toy,” Allgood said.  

Richard Chin is a Twin Cities newspaper reporter who has written for media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian.com and Stanford Magazine. He was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and once won the Wisconsin Wife Carrying Championship.

Richard Chin
By Richard Chin
Richard Chin is a Twin Cities newspaper reporter who has written for publications including the Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian.com and Stanford Magazine. He was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and once won the Wisconsin Wife Carrying Championship.@rrchin

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