Silent Generation

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The Silent Generation (born 1925–42) grew up as the seen-but-not-heard Li’l Rascals of the Great Depression and the Shirley Temples of World War II. They were the least immigrant generation in American history. They came of age just too late to be war heroes and just too early to be youthful free spirits. Instead, they became, like John Dean, “Rebels Without a Cause,” part of a “lonely crowd” of risk-averse technicians in an era in which conformity seemed to be a sure ticket to success. A vast new gap emerged between women’s and men’s education as this generation became the youngest mothers and fathers in American history, joining older G.I.s in gleaming new suburbs. They rode the wave of institutional civic life and conventional culture established by G.I.s as gray-flannel, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” corporate careerists.

Come the 1960s, the Silent stopped taking their cues from up the age ladder, and instead started looking at their Boomer juniors—following the lead of Bob Dylan (“I was older than that then, I’m younger than that now”). They became the leading civil rights activists, rock ‘n’ rollers, antiwar leaders, feminists, public interest lawyers, and mentors for young firebrands. They were America’s moms and dads during the divorce epidemic. They rose to political power after Watergate, with their Congressional leadership marked by a push toward institutional complexity and vast expansion in legal process. They are the first generation never to elect a U.S. President, and the first never to have a Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. As elders, they have focused on discussion, inclusion, and process, but not on decisive action. Having benefited from the collective upward mobility of the G.I. economic machine and institutional safety nets like defined-benefit pensions, they are spending elderhood with a hip style, generous benefits, and higher living standards relative to the young than any prior generation.