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The Silent Generation

When I was a young fellow, folks weren’t much into placing labels on generations.   Growing up we just looked at our history as a series of wars, booms and busts, heroics and dishonors, and tragedies and triumphs. 


Today, it’s different: every few years someone jumps up with an unsolicited label for the next generation.  In recent years I’ve heard much about the Baby Boomers, those born from 1946 through 1964, and the GI Generation, those born between 1901-1926, which includes the Greatest Generation as labeled by Steve Brokaw.


I’m not a member of the Greatest Generation; I was born in 1942 when most of the men were in Europe or the Pacific fighting the Axis powers.  I’m part of the first generation to follow the Greatest Generation.  The Greatest Generation opened the door to a wonderful, prosperous America.


I definitely have known that I wasn’t part of the Greatest Generation which saved the world for democracy, and although born on the cusp of the Baby Boomer generation, I’ve never really felt comfortable with these folks.   Perhaps it’s because they seem a little more materialistic or perhaps it’s my resistance to social change which so many of them seemed to recklessly embrace, but I shouldn’t be too judgmental of this group; they are, after all, products of their time.  Until recently, I never saw anything which put a label on my generation, those born between 1927 and 1945.


While doing a little research on a separate subject for a different essay, I ran across the term “Silent Generation,” (also called “Traditionalists” and “Lucky Few”) those born between 1927 and 1945.  If you were born in those years, you were born after WWI and were too young for WWII.  Perhaps we are labeled “Silents” because we didn’t have any war stories to tell.  Surely not.  Another label I found for this group was the “Lucky Few”; “Few” because of the extremely low birth rate in those years, about 50 million, and “Lucky” because of the prosperity we grew into.


A little article I read pointed out the following: Silents grew up in a period of peace, jobs, the arrival of the suburbs, television, rock ‘n roll, cool cars, and Playboy magazine.  When I was young, women still stayed home to raise children.  Once you got a job, you generally stayed with it as long as the job lasted.  Marriage was for life.  Having children out of wedlock was unacceptable. Schools were orderly places where passing notes and chewing gum were generally the worst offenses.  We were a reading generation.  There was a strong sense of trans-generational values and near absolute truths.  It was a generation of self-discipline, self-sacrifice, and caution.


Of course the Silent generation was followed by the Baby Boomers or Boom Generation or Hippie Generation, followed by Generation X or MTV Generation or Boomerang Generation, followed by Generation Y or Echo Boomers, followed by Generation Z or the New Silent Generation.


A couple of fellows, William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their book, Generations, made an attempt to define the various generations.  They labeled the Silents as an Artist or Adaptive generation.  Artist generations, according to Strauss and Howe, are born during a crisis.  I guess the Depression and World War II would qualify as a period of crisis.  They go on to say that the Artist generation goes on to spend its rising adult years in a new High (I have no idea what that means.), spends midlife in an Awakening (I’m not sure about that either.), and spend old age Unraveling (Well, that I get.)  They go on to say that leaders from this group of folks advocate for fairness, the politics of inclusion, and are irrepressible in the wake of failure. 


It’s difficult for me to decide if any of these are true about my generation; however, I’ve had a lot of failures and pretty easily shake them off and move on.  


Maybe it would be worth our time to look at specific folks from the Silents.  I found a site which breaks down the Silents by the years in which they were born.  Let’s use ‘42, the year I was born.  Let’s start with folks from government and politics: Holy crap! Joe Biden, Richard Daley, Marlin Fitzwater.  Hell, no wonder the Silents never produced a President.  Okay, what about folks from business and industry: Leonard Riggio, CEO, Barnes and Noble; Jack M. Greenberg, CEO, McDonald’s; Michael Eisner, CEO, Walt Disney, Co.  I don’t think I’ve learned anything from this group.  What about folks from the arts and entertainment: Jeez, Louise!  Tammy Faye Bakker (It’s got to get better.), Dick Butkus, Sandra Dee, Harrison Ford, Aretha Franklin, Arthur Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix, John Irving, Garrison Keillor, Wayne Newton, Pete Rose, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Martin Scorsese, Roger Staubach, and Tammy Wynette.  Hey, that ain’t bad.


I’m not sure what I’ve learned from this classification of a generation of Americans as “Silents.”  The few examples of individuals from one year of the generation didn’t help either.


I certainly can’t speak for all silents, but the following is how I see these folks.  We were lucky; most of us grew up in a prosperous time.  We were some of the first to assume that college was a realistic opportunity.  Many of us found jobs we respected and stuck to them for a working lifetime.  Most of us who could saved our shekels against bad times and retirement.  We respect our elders.  We believe in God.  We believe in family.  We believe in common sense and do not suffer fools lightly.  We maintain moral values and are bitterly disappointed when we fail ourselves.  We’re a little disappointed in where the country has gone politically and socially but have an undying optimism that the next generation will find a path to greatness.  Most of us realize the world will continue to turn after we are gone.  If you don’t find my generation appealing, at least take a good look at the Greatest Generation as a role model. 


Another article on the net about the “Silent Generation” characterized it as follows:


Number one was hardworking, considered work a privilege, willing to put in long hours.  I don’t know about the rest of you guys from my generation, but this was damned well true for me.


Loyal: the article says they are  loyal to their country and employer, often staying their lifetime with a single employer, not likely to change jobs to advance their careers.  Well, let’s see.  Yeah, loyal to folks who are decent.  Damned loyal to my country because too many have sacrificed too much for its salvation.  As for loyalty to employers; heck, I had so many bad ones, I’d have to come down on the side of “no.”


Submissive.  Nope.  I’ve always felt a responsibility to pin the tail on jackasses.


Tech-Challenged: Really?  I’ve got my own website; on the otherhand, I don’t have a cell phone.


Traditional.  Well, yes to traditional morals.


Today, 95% of the Silent Generation are retired.  I guess our time, if we ever had “our time,” is just about over. 


I’m not sure that I’ve learned anything useful about my “Silent Generation.” Everyone is his own person with his or her own experiences, attitudes, and beliefs regardless of when we were born.  I, however, choose to believe about my generation what a member of my class of 1960 said about our class at our 50 year reunion: “We were kind to each other.”   I wish I had said that.  I’m glad my classmate did.

enough