The Silent Generation: Characteristics and History

December 2, 2020  - by 
silent generation grandfather with grandson

The term “Silent Generation” was first documented in a 1951 Time magazine article, which claimed that the most startling fact about this generation was its silence: “By comparison with the Flaming Youth of their fathers and mothers, today’s younger generation is a still, small flame.”

The generation’s “silent” behavior has been attributed to the difficult times in which they were born, as well as their coming of age during McCarthyism. Though the Silent Generation is known for traditionalist behavior and a desire to work within the system rather than to change it, many not-so-silent and untraditional members of this generation shaped the world in significant ways.

silent generation husband and wife holding baby

The Birth Years of the Silent Generation

As with all generations, the birth years given for the Silent Generation vary depending on who creates the evaluation or defines the term. An often-used range, however, is 1928–1945. These years span from the beginning of the Great Depression to the end of World War II. People born during this time are also sometimes called “Radio Babies” or “Traditionalists.”

The term “Silent Generation” mainly refers to people living in the United States, but in some other parts of the world, war and economic trouble led to similar characteristics and behaviors in people born during this time.

Who Are the Silent Generation?

The oldest members of this generation were born at or near the beginning of the Great Depression. They were children during World War II and came of age during the 1950s and 60s. This generation is significantly smaller than their predecessors, those of the Greatest Generation, and smaller than the next generation, the Baby Boomers.

Many scholars believe that the Silent Generation’s low birth rate was due to the uncertainty and difficult conditions of the time, which meant that fewer people felt secure in starting families and raising children. The Silent Generation, as well as the Greatest Generation, were the parents of the Baby Boomers.

Characteristics of the Silent Generation

The Silent Generation began life in some of the most difficult conditions, including the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and economic and political uncertainty. The circumstances surrounding their upbringing led many of this generation to adopt cautious, conscientious behavior. The members of this generation also often have the characteristics described below.

silent generation girl drinking from cup

The Silent Generation is thrifty. Members of this generation were born at a time when, because of war rationing and economic uncertainty, some of their parents could barely afford to feed them. This tragic situation led to a new way of thinking about resources, and these children found themselves raised with thriftiness in mind.

The Silent Generation is respectful. Members of this generation typically have a deep respect for authority. They often worked in the same job or company for the majority of their careers.

The Silent Generation is loyal. Members of this generation are not only loyal to their careers but also to their religious beliefs, their relationships, and their families. They value stability and likewise are stable and dependable.

The Silent Generation is determined. This generation experienced many difficult times and challenges. Survival required grit and strength and a strong sense of determination.

Korean War soldier

Their Slice of History

Korean War

The soldiers sent to Korea during the Korean War were primarily from the Silent Generation. While this conflict is sometimes referred to as the “Forgotten War,” it has not been forgotten by this generation. The conflict defined a significant part of their lives and deepened the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. Many brave soldiers lost their lives.

McCarthyism and the Red Scare

The McCarthy era was one of fear and enforced conformity. It got its name from United States Senator Joseph McCarthy but was a widespread phenomenon. During this time, many people in the United States feared communist spies or communist sympathizers. Because of this fear, some government officials began screenings and trials to determine loyalty. Many citizens were accused and lost their careers, and some were imprisoned. Joseph McCarthy is most remembered for his investigations, which are often compared to witch hunts. Due to this social turmoil in their early adulthood, those of the Silent Generation would try keep their heads down.

Civil Rights Movement

While the generation may be called silent, many of the most influential voices in the civil rights movement were a part of this generation. These civil rights activists were anything but silent, advocating for change and equality. Nearly all the great leaders of the civil rights movement were a part of the Silent Generation. Martin Luther King Jr., born in 1929, was one of the most influential leaders at that time. The Little Rock Nine Students, born during the years 1940–1942, were among the first to integrate schools. These members of the Silent Generation, along with other members of the Silent Generation who were involved in this historic movement, were incredibly influential and inspiring.

not-so-silent generation marching  on Washington

The Silent Generation in Your Family

Who in your family tree is a part of the Silent Generation? What were their experiences during their lives? Learn more about your family’s story by exploring your family tree and recording their memories and experiences.

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  1. This generation-and I’m in it- also fought in the Vietnam War/Conflict and many content with its residual health problems, like Agent Orange, drug usage, and mental challenges like PTSD.

  2. The generation between WWI and WWII are often referred to as the “TWEENERS” for obvious reasons. Those born in the 1920’s served in WWII and the nest born in the 1930’s formed the bulk of the SILENT GENERATION.

  3. Me personally I think it’s sad that you can try and play god with human lives..labeling groups of individuals a certain way that it exposes their forcefully matured habits .caused from a higher group of individuals putting the lesser thru tests to see how they will react and which ones will stand out
    …we all know we have those who go against the grain on purpose the real fighters of the world ..well I happen to be the product of I believe the silent generation and the perfect generation ..while I know how to be very respectful as well as take on more then the now generation before blowing up I still have that limit ..and everyone can be pushed a bit to far..

    1. If it wasn’t for the so called silent generation that apparently you don’t like, you perhaps wouldn’t have the shoulders to to stand on. Born in 1940 and after High School, having a great worry about socialism, at 17, I was in US Navy boot camp. After 6 years of military obligation came College and Marriage. We all build a foundation for the next generation to build on. If so, life has been a success. I’ve learned to appreciate what I’ve been blessed with and enjoy the journey along the way. Sometimes life is not the best. As on of the greatest newscasters Walter Cronkite always said. “And that’s the way it is”

  4. The Silent Generation? 1928-1945 ? Really? As changes in society speed up, you cannot lump 20 years together and say they have life in common. Those who were born in the 20’s got hit with the Depression and the effect lasted all their lives. Those born in the forties were too young to grasp McCarthyism or the Korean War (Police Action) We War Babies grew up in the fat years of the fifties. The middle class owned houses, and the women rarely worked outside the home. Then we became young adults in the Vietnam era and Civil unrest, annd the Kennedys and King assassinations. In my college days I actually found myself arrested in an early sit-in protest against the draft, when I thought I was protesting Segregation. I sputtered this to the Judge, who laughed so hard, he let us all go.Yes it certainly was early days.Civil rights inspired the other bondage group in America…America’s women. ERA movements were also born in our era. As a result of those protests, women could not only work, they were no longer restricted to teacher, nurse, secretary. All of these are wonderful careers, but not everyone fits in them. Choice is good.

    1. Well said. I was born in 1944 and consider myself a war baby as that was what I was. I am grateful to have been born at that time and see the growth of so many areas and see the vision of our different types of people. We all live and work and retire, perhaps have children. Some served our country in the military and most serve through the various opportunities that have come their way. We hopefully give back so those who travel hard roads find caring individuals along the way. We are a blessed people.

  5. I’m a member of this Silent Generation, being born in 1932. My maternal grandfather had 14 children by his second and third marriages. Most of those those children were male, and most of them served in they Armed Forces from the Second War War, and those that followed. I am very proud of all my half-uncles who served in the army and navy.