The Silent Generation

Ernie Stech, PhD

Transitioning from active 60-80 hour work weeks to retirement or semi-retirement can be challenging and sometimes problematic. Herein we have a group of men (including ASU Emeritus faculty me­members, engulfed in that transition with new spirit, new friendships, and enjoyment of a sporting activity.

Born between 1925 and 1942, members of the Silent Generation have been characterized as withdrawn, cautious, unimaginative, indifferent, and un-adventurous. However they pioneered social causes, technical advances, and cultural changes. They experienced the greatest and fastest increase in personal income and were the most fertile generation of the 20th century.

Individuals born between 1925 and 1942 were conscripted into the Silent Generation, so named by Time Magazine in its cover story on November 5, 1951. An earlier Fortune magazine report characterized members of the Silent Generation or “Silents” as tractable and harmonious. They were also characterized in the 1950s as “…withdrawn, cautious, unimaginative, indifferent, unadventurous -- and silent” by historian William Manchester, a member of the preceding G.I. generation. Members of the Silent Generation were sandwiched between the G.I. Generation (also Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation”) and the subsequent Boomers. According to a member of the Silent generation who wrote an essay on “The Silent Generation Revisited” in Time: “…we were, with few exceptions, still, quiet, and serenely uninvolved.” This quiet and passive cohort also has been dubbed the “Forgotten Generation”, “Traditionalists”, and, in a real indignity, lumped by some with the preceding generation.

In the schema used by Strauss and Howe in Generations (1991), the Silents are members of an “Adaptive” generation. The other generational types are “Civic”, “Reactive”, and “Idealist”. The preceding G.I. generation was “Civic”, and the succeeding Boomers “Idealist”. Persons in an “Adaptive” generation grow up during a period of secular crisis. In the case of the Silents, multiple sequential crises -- the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and subsequent bank failures, the Great Depression of the 1930s, World War II, and finally the Atomic Age with MAD (mutually assured destruction) on the part of the superpowers.

Adaptives tend to be overprotected and suffocated as children and youths. The parents of Silents faced, over three decades, the loss of savings and investments, possible unemployment during the Depression, service in the military during World War II, and then the threat of nuclear war. The results are offspring who are risk averse and conformist adults, the kind of people described above as cautious, unimaginative, indifferent, withdrawn, and unadventurous. During midlife, Silents tend, according to Strauss and Howe, to become arbitrator-leaders, interested in ways to mediate, arbitrate, and negotiate through conflict. The authors also suggest that as elders, where the Silents are today, they become influential as sensitive elders without the respect of their juniors.

Values the Silents hold include fairness, openness, due process, and expertise according to Strauss and Howe. Additional traits include kindness, gentleness, consideration, and conscience. The “quiet ones” tend to be nonjudgmental and accepting. Silents are good at interpersonal communication, and see communication as the way to solve human problems. If worse comes to worst, Silents either defer, or live with, problems rather than solve them.

However, this same generation produced progenitors of social change. Strauss and Howe note that the founders or early advocates of minority rights were from the Silent generation -- Martin Luther King Jr. as an African American, Cesar Chavez as Hispanic, and Russell Means for American Indian rights. In addition, but not noted in their list, was the initiation of the women’s movement and feminism, including the founding of Ms. magazine by Gloria Steinem. Furthermore the movement toward accommodations for the handicapped occurred during the adult years of the Silent Generation. Silents also participated in many cases that lead to the resistance to the Vietnam War.

This orientation also resulted in the development of T-groups, encounter groups, sensitivity training, personal growth seminars, and an onslaught of personal development books including many with a spiritual or religious emphasis, often Far Eastern religions. Interpersonal and small group communication studies and courses were included in academic departments; these courses once were titled “speech”, and had dealt mainly with rhetoric and debate. Transpersonal psychology came on the scene forcibly under the direction of Silents -- Ken Wilber, Jean Houston, and Stanislav Grof. Strauss and Howe point out that there was a surge of new members of the helping or civic professions that included teaching, medicine, ministry, nursing, law enforcement, and public administration. The number of public interest groups grew rapidly during the adult years of the Silent generation.

Similar changes occurred in the field of management; as an example, employee job satisfaction became an important goal, was assessed, and then addressed by managers. Personnel departments were re-titled Human Resources, and included services to help individuals in their private lives as well as on the job. Leadership studies began to emphasize the importance of process and person orientation in addition to task completion and goal orientation, as exemplified by the very popular “Managerial Grid” by Blake and Mouton. There was more emphasis on employee involvement and participation in determining how work would and should be done. Silents developed and propagated win-win conflict management techniques in non-zero-sum games.

On a different and musical note, Elvis Presley, born in 1935, was clearly a member of the Silent generation. The Beatles, except for George Harrison, were a part of the late Silent generation, that is, the time span from 1937 to 1942. Although supposedly a part of the Baby Boomers, these popular culture stars were in fact a part of the earlier generation and could hardly be considered “silent”!

The Silents were, at the same time, technocrats. They made major advancements in numerous areas. The IBM PC was developed under the direction of a member of the Silent Generation. Most of the early work on digital technology was performed by Silents, and they ushered in the “information age” and “knowledge economy”, which now pervade modern societies. Mission controllers at NASA, notably Gene Kranz of Apollo 13 fame, were Silents, as were many of the engineers and technical managers on the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and even the Space Shuttle programs. In addition to technical advancements, members of the Silent generation developed highly sophisticated planning methods for the design, development, and operation of complex space, military, and infrastructure systems. The concomitant of these developments, unfortunate at times, was the implementation of decision-by-group methods in management. A similar effect occurred in legislative bodies in which there was a proliferation of committees and hearings.

On an entirely different note, Silents were in their mid-years when the sexual revolution occurred. Playboy magazine was founded by a Silent, Hugh Hefner. (Interestingly both Playboy and Ms. magazines were founded by members of this generation!) Silents exhibited a divorce epidemic in their 30s and 40s. They had married earlier and had children sooner than prior generations. They were the most fertile generation of the 20th century, exceeding prior rates by almost one child per family. The typical family consisted of two parents and three children. However the Silent generation had the fewest members in U.S. history due, undoubtedly, to delayed marriages and financial constraints reducing the birth rate. Fortunately, the Silents had the greatest and fastest increase in personal income of any generation according to Strauss and Howe.

Finally, the Silents induced two kinds of changes in society, according to Strauss and Howe, that do not reflect the judgment about passivity and indifference. There were more citizen initiated ballot measures as the Silents came of age and moved into adulthood. In addition, there was an increase in “second guessing” -- judicial appeals, recall elections, and football replays!

References for this article can be found on page 316

Ernest L. Stech PhD

Ernest L. “Ernie” Stech received his Ph.D. from the University of Denver and taught for fifteen years at Western Michigan University. He is the author or co-author of five books, and chapters in several other books. Ernie teaches in the OSHER Lifelong Learning programs in Sun City Grand and Sun City Festival. He is an Arizona snowbird, spending summers in Flagstaff where he is a volunteer ranger with the National Park Service. He winters in Sun City.