Comparing generations is usually a ridiculous indulgence in pop academia and generalisations, and this post is no exception. Anyone who’s had the misfortune of reading any of endless execrable columns called “Why Gen Ys Are Twitter Dependent Sociopaths” or “Why Gen Ys Aren’t Twitter Dependent Sociopaths” written by some beaming twit in a tabloid lift out will know exactly what I mean.
We have a natural tendency to categorise and label because it saves us mental energy – it’s much easier to start with a template or a stereotype than to establish an understanding of a person from scratch. Of course, most of these assumptions are false, and we have to constantly strive to notice and discard them.
All that said, environmental factors play a huge role in the formation of our attitudes and attributes, and these factors, especially economic and cultural ones, change with the flow of time. “Generation gaps” are confected narratives that only vaguely approximate reality. But so is most of history. The 20th century technically went from the 1st of January 1901 to the 31st of December 2000, but it’s zeitgeist in the English speaking world stretched from the death of Queen Victoria to the attack on the World Trade Centre.
The constellations and consolations we draw from the scattered events of the past are our crude attempt to understand the multitudinous patterns that actually lie beneath. Before the Industrial Revolution, in times of relative stability, difference between generations may have been far less pronounced – but in our era of global catastrophes and rapid technological shifts the difference of a few decades on people’s psychology and worldview is vast. This acceleration of cultural change means that contrasting strata of history seem to be alive around us. We are products of our time more noticeably than ever before.
It is understandable, then, that popular media is teeming with comparisons between the ‘Baby Boomers’, ‘Generation X’, ‘Generation Y’ and even ‘Generation Z’. (“Generation X” has a kind of twee-70’s-journo logic too it, but the International Generation Naming Committee clearly suffered considerable funding cuts in the 80s. I blame Thatcher.) If somewhat tedious, this instinct to endlessly categorise and compare people based on their age cohort makes sense.
What’s odd, however, is that these narratives almost invariably act as if no-one over the age of sixty-seven exists. Whatever happened to the Silent Generation?
Born between the mid 1920s and the mid 1940s the so-called “Silent Generation” represents around one in eight Australians. These are the men and women who were too young to fight in the Second World War but grew up under its monumental umbra. Conversely, many were perceived as too old to participate in the cultural revolution of the 60s, having already passed their formative years and settled into domestic and professional life. The rapidity of that cultural shift is striking – my grandmother listens to Glenn Miller and Dean Martin, but her youngest sister, less than fifteen years her junior, is a Beatles fanatic.
This cohort is supposedly quiet because of the childhood traumas of the Depression and War and the constant threat of nuclear Armageddon that loomed over most of their adult lives. Unable to claim personal and political authority from the Ally victory like the preceding generation or to reject traditional values wholesale like many of their successors, they were left in an historical no man’s land, taciturn bystanders to the clash of worlds around them.
One of the most irritating things about trite generational observations is how many of them aren’t generational at all. Of course older people tend to be conservative and play lawn bowls and young people are more rebellious and do stupid things like listening to Macklemore. This is like comparing apples to apple blossoms – contrasting different groups at the same age is far more useful.
That’s why this Time magazine feature about the Silent Generation written in 1951 is particularly striking. Rather than the age-old portrait of “youth today” as lazy, iconoclastic whippersnappers, the article describes the Silent Generation as “…far less childish than its parents were. As a whole, it is more sober and conservative.” The author writes that they “…are less showy about sex…”, “…seem to have no militant beliefs…” are “…grave and fatalistic…” and that “…more than any of its predecessors, this generation wants a good; secure job.” If you can manage to ignore the ridiculous sexism and get to the end, he depressingly concludes that “…youth today has little cynicism, because it never hoped for much.” Even in their youth, contemporary observers wrote that today’s old people acted… Well, old.
If there’s any truth to these broad characterisations, it perhaps explains why the Silent Generation are under-represented in popular culture. And I believe that they are under-represented, collectively and as an archetype, in a way that the proceeding generation was not. The figure of the cantankerous, war-yarn spinning elder still looms large in film and television, a direct evolution of 1950’s patriarch and housewife. It’s interesting to note that around the time the bulk that this so-called “Greatest Generation” or “G.I Generation” reached old age, the depiction of older people in advertising became markedly more positive – as veterans and empire builders they were (and the few still with us are) considered by the mainstream as worthy of deferential respect. Whether criticised or endorsed by storytellers, they personify the “traditional values” of patriotism and orthodoxy that conservative movements across the West idealise to this day.
Meanwhile, Baby Boomer tropes have been prominent for decades, and they have recently begun to be depicted as seniors, with characters like Pierce Hawthorne from Community or Jay Pritchett in Modern Family. But while Silent Generation characters exist on television and film, they rarely have attributes that tie them to their era, and since the late 1980s have been increasingly few and far between. Now they are practically invisible.
Even more striking is the under-representation of the Silents in the political sphere, especially in the America. The United States have never had a Silent Generation president – no-one born between the two Bushes has or will hold office.
This is the last Generation who were raised before Late Capitalism. The hardship of their childhoods instilled values of frugality and unostentatiousness are completely at odds with the rampant consumerism that has dominated the West since the end of WWII. Aggressive marketing and times of plenty have acclimatised succeeding generations to unapologetic decadence and systematic gluttony, but they remember a time where goods were prized on durability and fixed, before built-in obsolescence and light-speed fashion changes.
This makes the Silent Generation an extremely unprofitable demographic, and that, I believe, is why they are neither seen nor heard in the mass media. But in a world of rapidly depleting resources and looming environmental catastrophe, it is vital that we listen to their wisdom before it’s too late.