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Taking a closer look at the achievements of the Silent, or Greatest, Generation

Q. I am a member of the Silent Generation and feel we have been overlooked in terms of our character strengths and contributions to society.  Could you present the case for the “Silents?” Thank you. S.N. 

One reason you might feel that your generation has not been fully acknowledged is that the Silent Generation – that is, folks who were born between 1928 and 1945 – is the smallest generation in the past 100 years.  

There is more. Let’s begin with the concept of generational identities which became popular in the 1990s. This concept was based on a theory developed by William Strauss and Neil Howe who suggested that individuals born during a certain period of time were influenced by similar historical events, moods and values in society. These shared experiences translated to having shared beliefs and behaviors. What evolved were their generational identities

One example is the Silent Generation. These folks lived during the Depression and WWII. The term was first documented in a 1951 Time magazine article noting that this generation was silent compared to the “flaming youth of their fathers and others….” In addition to being few in number, the social and cultural environment was “to be seen and not heard.” The “Silents” also have been referred to as the Greatest Generation, named after the book by NBC journalist Tom Brokaw. Brokaw admired this generation because of their desire to do the right thing.

Here are 10 of their shared characteristics:

Personal responsibility: The Great Depression encouraged self-reliance.    
Resilience: This was the result of the challenges they faced during the Depression and WWII.
Humility: The scarcity experienced by many during the difficult times fostered a sense of modesty and humility. Little was taken for granted.      
Work Ethic: Folks had to figure out how to survive through hard work doing jobs that often were physically demanding with long hours
Frugality: For many, this was a time of shortages and financial struggles.  A motto at that time was, “Use it up–fix it up– make it do–or do without.”
Commitment: Silents had a lifetime approach to marriage and one’s job. A position with IBM was a job for life.  
Integrity: They had to rely on one another so values of honesty and trustworthiness were important.  
Self-Sacrifice: Millions made personal sacrifices to defend their country or were engaged in other at-home efforts to support the war.   
Loyalty: They were loyal to their careers and beliefs, relationships and families; they value stability and being dependable. 
Determination: Their survival required grit, strength and determination as they sought economic security and comfort.      
Respect: Silents have a deep respect for authority in the workplace as well as for professionals such as doctors. 

The Silent Generation rebuilt the economy after the Great Depression, helped launch the Civil Rights movement and fought in WWII. Then there was Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gloria Steinem who brought about social revolutions. Eleven of the 12 moon-walking astronauts were members of the Silent Generation. The Silent Generation transformed our WWII enemies of Germany and Japan into allies. They managed threats of nuclear war under what was called the MAD or Mutually Assured Destruction agreement among the superpowers. They agreed that if one moved to strike the other, there would be immediate retaliation. Clearly, the Silent Generation was not that silent. 

Some consider generational theory as contentious because it is based on generalizations and promotes stereotypes, as suggested by Ashton Applewhite, journalist, author and anti-ageism advocate. However, the concept has been successfully used in building intergenerational work teams and a diverse workplace by increasing awareness of communication styles, relationship to authority, workplace expectations and more. 

Here is a new one: The “Still Generation,” as suggested by Erlene Rosowsky, Professor of Clinical Psychology, Department at William James College and Teaching Associate at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry. The Still Generation is continuing to do what they love to do. In many cases, that’s work – for pay or not. Their shared characteristics are likely authenticity and being intentional and determined. When someone asks if you are “still working” the assumption is that you are doing something out of the ordinary at your life stage that is not exactly according to social norms and expectations. Often that expectation is retirement. The Still Generation will continue to grow with increased longevity, the desire for purpose and workplace needs. 

Thank you S.N. for your thoughtful question. I hope this column helps build the case for the Silents.

“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” – Aesop

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity

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