The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (July 2021)
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The Silent Generation, also known as the Traditionalist Generation, is the demographic cohort following the Greatest Generation and preceding the Baby Boomers. The Silent Generation is generally defined as people born from 1928 to 1945. By this definition and U.S. Census data, there were 23 million Silents in the United States as of 2019.
In the United States, the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II in the early to mid 1940s caused people to have fewer children and as a result, the generation is comparatively small. It includes most of those who fought during the Korean War. Upon coming of age in the 1950s, they are noted as forming the leadership of the Civil rights movement as well as comprising the "silent majority" and creating the rock and roll music of the 1950s and 1960s.
The most startling fact about the younger generation is its silence. With some rare exceptions, youth is nowhere near the rostrum. By comparison with the Flaming Youth of their fathers & mothers, today's younger generation is a still, small flame. It does not issue manifestoes, make speeches or carry posters. It has been called the "Silent Generation."
The Time magazine article used birth dates of 1923 to 1933 for the generation, but the term somehow migrated to the later years currently in use. A reason later proposed for this perceived silence is that as young adults during the McCarthy Era, many members of the Silent Generation felt it was unwise to speak out.
The term "Silent Generation" is also used to describe a similar age group in the UK but has been at times described as a reference to strict childhood discipline which taught children to be "seen but not heard." In Canada, it has been used with the same meaning as in the United States. The cohort is also known as the "Traditionalist Generation" and has been named the "Lucky Few" in the 2008 book The Lucky Few: Between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom by Elwood D. Carlson.
Dates and age ranges
The Intergenerational Centre of the Resolution Foundation has used 1926 to 1945, while the Encyclopedia of Strategic Leadership and Management uses the range 1925 to 1945. Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe use 1925 to 1942. People born in the later years of World War II who were too young to have any direct recollections of the conflict are sometimes considered to be culturally, if not demographically, baby boomers.
As children and adolescents
As a cultural narrative, the Silent Generation are described as children of the Great Depression whose parents, having revelled in the highs of the Roaring Twenties, now faced great economic hardship and struggled to provide for their families. Before reaching their teens, they shared with their parents the horrors of World War II but through children's eyes. Many lost their fathers or older siblings who were killed in the war. They saw the fall of Nazism and the catastrophic devastation made capable by the nuclear bomb. When the Silent Generation began coming of age after World War II, they were faced with a devastated social order within which they would spend their early adulthood and a new enemy in Communism via the betrayal of post-war agreements and rise of the Soviet Union. Unlike the previous generation who had fought for "changing the system," the Silent Generation were about "working within the system." They did this by keeping their heads down and working hard, thus earning themselves the "silent" label. Their attitudes leaned toward not being risk-takers and playing it safe. Fortune magazine's story on the College Class of '49 was subtitled "Taking No Chances". This generation were also heavily influenced by the transformations brought about by the Golden Age of Radio, the rise of trade unions, the development of transatlantic flight and the discovery of Penicillin during their formative years.
From their childhood experiences during the Depression and the insistence from their parents to be frugal, Silents tended to be thrifty and even miserly, preferring to maximize the property's lifespan, i.e. "get their money's worth." This led some members of the Silent Generation to develop hoarder tactics in the guise of "not being wasteful."
As with their own parents, Silents tended to marry and have children young. American Silents are noted as being the youngest of all American generations in marrying and raising families. As young parents, this generation gave birth primarily to the Baby Boomers while younger members of the generation and older members who held off raising a family until later in life gave birth to Generation X. Whereas divorce in the eyes of the previous generation was considered aberrant behavior, the Silents were the generation that reformed marriage laws to allow for divorce and lessen the stigma. This led to a wave of divorces among Silent Generation couples thereafter in the United States.
Critics of the theory that those born from 1928 to 1945 tend towards conformity and playing it safe note that at least in the United States, leaders of 1960s era rebellion/innovation/protest such as Muhammad Ali, Bob Dylan, Noam Chomsky, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jimi Hendrix were members of the alleged Silent Generation, and not Baby Boomers. While seven Presidents of the United States were members of the Greatest Generation (John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush) and four Presidents have been Baby boomers (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump), only one President, Joe Biden, has been a member of the Silent Generation.
As a birth cohort, they never rose in protest as a unified political entity. Widely seen as "following the rules" and benefiting from stable wealth creation, their Boomer and Gen X children would become estranged from them due to their different views regarding social concerns and markedly decreased economic opportunity, creating a different generational zeitgeist. For example, the Boomer children were instrumental in bringing about the counterculture of the 1960s, and the rise of left wing, liberal views considered anti-establishment, those of which went directly against the "work within the system" methodology that the Silents had advocated. Gen X children grew up in the 1970s and 1980s with the threat of nuclear war hanging over them and a resultant bleak view of the future, contributing to their generational disaffection, in contrast to the optimistic outlook of their Silent Generation parents.
The style of parenting known to the Silents and the generations before them originated in the late 1800s. Representative of this was the idea that "children should be seen but not heard". These ideas were ultimately challenged following the 1946 publication of the book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care by Benjamin Spock which influenced some Boomers' views on parenting and family values when they became parents themselves. Since Spock's book was published in 1946, it also influenced how Baby Boomers were parented. These conflicting views, seen as overly permissive by the Silents, further estranged those Boomers from their parents and, amongst other things, gave rise in the mid-1960s to the term generation gap to describe the initial conflict of cultural values between the Silents and their Boomer (and later Gen X) children.
As children and adolescents
There was a slump in birth rates in the UK between the two major baby booms following each world war. This roughly correlated with the economic downturn in the 1930s and World War II. The era of the Great Depression was a time of deprivation for many children, unemployment was high and slum housing was common. However, education was compulsory from the age of five to fourteen years old. Gaining a place at grammar school was a way for young people whose families could not afford them being privately educated to gain full access to secondary schooling. In a time before widespread car use, children commonly played outside in the street and further afield without adult supervision. Toys of this era were quite simple but examples included dolls, model aeroplanes and trains. Other popular activities included reading comics, playing boardgames, going to the cinema and joining children's organisations such as the scouts. It was estimated that more than 85% of British households owned a wireless (radio) by 1939.
The Second World War impacted the lives of children in various ways. Significant numbers of schoolchildren were evacuated without their parents to the countryside to avoid the threat of bombing throughout the war years. The quality of education fell everywhere but particularly in urban areas for various reasons, including a shortage of teachers and supplies, the distress pupils suffered from air raids and the disruption caused by evacuations. However, rationing during World War II and the years after improved the health of the population overall with one study conducted in the early 2000s suggesting that a typical 1940s child ate a healthier diet than their counterpart at the start of the 21st century. Following the Second World War, the school-leaving age was raised to 15 with every child being allocated to one of three types of school based on a test taken at the age of 11.
The Silent Generation in the Soviet Union is similar to Sixtiers. These people were born into Stalinism, raised during collectivisation and were witnesses of the Holodomor. So even though there was no Great Depression in the Soviet Union, they still experienced a lack of resources and food as children. In 1930s and 1940s many of them lost their parents or close relatives during Stalinist repressions and later during battles and German occupation in WWII. Sometimes this generation is called the "Children of XX-th Congress".
Australia's McCrindle Research uses the name "Builders" to describe the Australian members of this generation, born between 1925 and 1945, and coming of age to become the generation "who literally and metaphorically built [the] nation after the austerity years post-Depression and World War II".
Data is from the Pew Research Center. Recent cohort sizes are greater than the number born due to immigration.
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