What “Silent Generation?”
Everyone knows about the Baby Boom Generation, born from 1946 to 1964. Likewise, we all know “The Greatest Generation,” who were born 1901-1925 and fought World War II. Those two iconic cohorts loom large as we recount American history over the last century.
But what about the generation born from 1926 to 1945? What do we call them, the Americans who grew up during the Great Depression and World War II?
Some writers and analysts overlook them completely. A 2014 article and accompanying chart in the Atlantic totally ignored this generation, detecting no break between Greatest and Boomers.
For journalists and researchers who know that the Boomers did not come immediately after the Greatest, one designation is “Traditionalist.” But the label used most often is the “Silent Generation.” Many newspapers employ it, and Wikipedia has a lengthy entry with that heading.
The label arose in the early 1950s as a pejorative for those who failed to speak against McCarthyism, and it took permanent root, even though most of the cohort were only children and teens when Senator Joseph McCarthy held sway. The Pew Research Center’s website notes, “their ‘Silent’ label refers to their image as conformist and civic-minded.”
Wide usage does not, however, assure accuracy, and the characterization “Silent Generation” is laughably inappropriate. Consider the stunning array of leaders that emerged from that generation across the broad spectrum of our common life — people who were anything but silent.
In civil rights: Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson Sr., John Lewis. Business: Warren Buffett, Ted Turner, Martha Stewart. Government: Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, John McCain, John Kerry, Newt Gingrich, Ted Kennedy, Bernie Sanders. Journalism and books: Maya Angelou, Bob Woodward, Harper Lee. Entertainment and music: Marilyn Monroe, Hugh Hefner, Berry Gordy, Aretha Franklin, George Lucas, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Clint Eastwood, Bill Cosby, Barbra Streisand. Sports: Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Wilt Chamberlain, Joe Namath, Arthur Ashe, Pete Rose, Jack Nicklaus.
The list goes on, from every component of American life: Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, Jerry Falwell Sr., Cesar Chavez, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, Ralph Nader, Rudy Giuliani, Daniel Ellsberg, Neil Armstrong, Andy Warhol. These people were not silent in any sense of the word.
This list includes several who will be revered for decades to come, as well as a few whose lamentable legacy we would prefer to erase from our memories. Whatever we think of them, individually and together, they did not represent a silent generation.
Beyond the leaders, the 1926-1945 generation also produced a stunning pool of “followers” who were equally not silent. They were ordinary folks doing extraordinary things, especially by the norms received from their parents. Their names will never appear in bold type, nor will they rate Wikipedia pages, but they were truly a generation bent on transforming society.
Freedom rides, sit-ins, women’s consciousness-raising groups, Stonewall, gays challenging the stay-in-the-closet norm, Black kids desegregating all-White schools, organizers of Woodstock, boycotts in support of farm workers, experiments with LSD, wide use of marijuana, launching the environmental movement, protesters of both the nuclear arms race and the Vietnam War — the quotidian folks of this generation were always about making changes. This is the generation that made Habitat for Humanity and MADD into household names almost overnight.
The women, most of whose mothers had been “homemakers,” realized that working outside the home was desirable as both a means and an end. In 1950, only 34 percent of American women were in the work force. As the “Silent Generation” came of age, millions of women surged into every type of job, and by 2000 the proportion had leaped to 60 percent.
Finally, this generation should never again be called “Silent” because the changes it wrought were far-reaching, undeniable and permanent. Not only is rock-and-roll here to stay (as one song from this generation put it), so are many other innovations that were developed and widely embraced by this group: no-fault divorce, the Pill, the proliferation of nonprofit organizations, frequent protest marches, feminism as fundamental, an active life in retirement.
The “Silents” flexed their muscle to insist on changing the minimum voting age to 18, as well as equal treatment of women and minorities in every American institution.
Family, work, education, sex, race, politics, movies, music — this generation altered every aspect of our common life, and those changes carried over to the lives of every subsequent generation.
One surprising facet of life today is the outsize role that some from this generation still play in the American body politic: Joe Biden, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi and Anthony Fauci are all from the so-called “Silent Generation.” While many of their cohort have moved to the wings, this quartet occupied center stage for a long time; the first two are still there, while the other two stepped away from the bulls-eye in recent weeks.
At its peak this generation in America numbered about 50 million. The majority have now passed away, and the youngest will be turning 78 this year. We are well beyond the appropriate time to find a suitable appellation for them. So, what is a more apt moniker than “Silent Generation?” Perhaps Pioneer or Trailblazer or Hinge or Transformative? All of those work, but my preference is the “Change Generation.” That’s the best way to characterize what they, leaders and followers alike, did for America: they wrought change.
Robert “Bob” Tiller lives at Riderwood in Silver Spring, Md. He was born in 1941.