Martha Stewart, Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Walters, Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Shirley Temple Black, Gloria Steinem and Marilyn Monroe have something (in many cases, multiple things) in common: they are or were all members of the Silent Generation.
The Silent Generation largely came of age after World War II; its oldest members are currently 94, and its youngest members are 76. While these “Traditionalists” have mostly retired, they continue to define many structures and practices within the modern workplace.
Who are the members of the Silent Generation? What characteristics define them? And what does their legacy look like?
Also known as the Traditionalists, the Silent Generation includes people born between 1925–42 who are now in their 70s, 80s and 90s. Sandwiched between the World II heroes of the GI Generation (or Greatest Generation) and the Baby Boomers, who came of age during the Vietnam War, they were — and continue to be — known as Traditionalists for their tendency to take the cautious, risk-free path. This generation also became known for initiating the idea of the “midlife crisis,” a term popularized by Gail Sheehy, as described in her book Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life.
“Youth today is waiting for the hand of fate to fall on its shoulders, meanwhile working fairly hard and saying almost nothing,” declares a 1951 TIME article entitled “People: The Younger Generation.” “The most startling fact about the younger generation is its silence. With some rare exceptions, youth is nowhere near the rostrum. By comparison with the Flaming Youth of their fathers & mothers, today's younger generation is a still, small flame. It does not issue manifestoes, make speeches or carry posters. It has been called the ‘Silent Generation.’”
This seems to be one of the earliest descriptions of the generation as the “silent” one. Members, who came of age after World War II, are characterized by their tendency to not rock the boat or disrupt the system — a stark contrast to their Baby Boomer children.
Who are the members of the Silent Generation? Many are retired today, so it can be difficult to picture them as working young adults. Some characteristics that describe them include:
As the children of the GI Generation, they navigated the post-war landscape with care, not wanting to disrupt or change the system but rather working within it. This is true across work, politics and life in general. They married young and secured jobs with pension plans, always mindful of the “rules” of society.”
The Silent Generation grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. They brought determination into their work lives, believing that productivity and commitment lead to long-term success.
That hard work has paid off. According to Forbes, the Silent Generation is the wealthiest generation of seniors ever, with a median household net worth of $228,400 for the 75+ bracket in 2010 — five times higher than the median net worth of households with ages 35 to 44 at the same time. This may stem from their emphasis on saving, after coming of age during a time of financial difficulty and uncertainty.
The “Traditionalists” are, of course, traditional. They tend to value established ways and consistency — a quality emphasized in their work lives, where they respected hierarchical structures and avoided disrupting the status quo. (Some members of this generation are still working, of course, though most are retired.)
Members of this generation tended to remain loyal to employers. Interestingly, according to research conducted by The Urban Institute, men of the Silent Generation were more likely to retire earlier than their GI Generation counterparts, while the median retirement age for women of both generations was 59, with women of the younger generation more likely to work past 65 than those of the older generation.
It’s a bit of an overgeneralization to characterize entire generations, but there are certain qualities thought to be emblematic of each generation through the ages. Here are the generations since the 20th century and some of their “defining” features. (NB: Birth year ranges vary depending on different sources. These dates are taken from NPR.org’s “From GIs To Gen Z (Or Is It iGen?): How Generations Get Nicknames.”)
• GI Generation
Also known as the Greatest Generation, a label popularized by Tom Brokaw in his book by the same name, the GIs were young adults (for the most part) at the dawn of World War II. They came of age during the Great Depression, and these tumultuous times led to values of faith and dedication.
• The Silent Generation
These Traditionalists generally conformed to society’s expectations and tended to follow the rules — which often led to great economic success.
• Baby Boomers
Born after World War II, Boomers were largely teenagers and young adults during the Vietnam War. Unlike the previous generation, they didn’t avoid conflict — in fact, their protests of the War defined the entire era. Their independence and resourceful natures often carried over into the workplace, and many remain committed to their careers.
• Generation X
Like the previous generation, Gen X is characterized by independence and sometimes rebelliousness. As digital immigrants — growing up at a time before the digital age — they can be quite tech-savvy since they had to learn how to use digital technologies, rather than being born with access to them.
Also known as Generation Y, Millennials have received a lot of criticism, with many older generations calling them entitled, immature and self-obsessed. They grew up with access to the internet, and younger members also had access to social media while they were still children and teenagers.
• Generation Z
The first true digital natives, the youngest members of the workforce are also thought to be the most dependent on technology. The oldest members of the so-called “iGeneration” are now adults. Many grew up during the recession and are already showing a strong work ethic — as well as independence and innovation.