These days, a battle of the generations is taking place in the culture. People wag their fingers at the just-coming-of-age Generation Z and their phone-dependence and inability to play outside. “OK boomer,” they reply.
Gen Xers mock the millennials for their avocado toast and selfies, while the millennials mock them back for their apathy. Then they both take shots at boomers regarding student loan debt and the cost of housing.
There’s a generation missing from this battle, despite the fact that they’re very much still around. It’s called the Silent Generation, and no one seems to have a problem them. But when they were first named as a generation, a lot of people did.
The Silent Generation (people born between 1925 and 1942)
The Silent Generation comes after the GI Generation (also known as the Greatest Generation) and before the Baby Boom Generation. They were born between 1925 and 1942 and came of age in an era of post-war prosperity. When they first entered adolescence and young adulthood they were on the receiving end of a barrage of societal criticism.
They were first characterized as a generation in a 1951 cover story in TIME. They were accused of being compliant, conformist, uninterested in world affairs.
The article summed up the accusations saying that “by comparison with the Flaming Youth of their fathers and mothers, today’s younger generation is a still, small flame.”
The Class of ’57
In 1957 LIFE ran an editorial titled “Arise ye Silent Class of ’57!” It was about all the speeches that were being given by older generations to graduating classes around the country that year.
The speakers “seemed to feel that many of the Class of ’57, unlike the gobbling rebellious young turks of the past, were a silent generation — perhaps even prefabricated ‘organization men’ only too eager to claim faceless and voiceless roles in a world whose besting sin was unprotesting conformity.”
One deplored the “growing cult of yesmanship.” Another, a generation “more concerned with security than integrity…with conforming than performing, with imitating than creating.” And another the “will to be accepted by the group at any price.”
Usually when older generations complain about “kids these days” they bring up faults like laziness, lack of responsibility, or wild immorality. But when it came to the Silent Generation, the kids were being criticized for being too agreeable, too pliable, and too silent.
The Silent Generation had been born during the depression and war years, but came into consciousness and independence in an age of stability, prosperity and modern comforts like TV, transistor radios, and sliced bread.
They brought words and concepts into the culture like teenager, rock and roll, bobbysoxers, going steady, and babysitter. They were babysitting the generation that would come to be called the boomers.
The Baby Boom generation was so comparatively huge in number and so much more analyzed, criticized and editorialized over that they ended up absorbing most of the Silent Generation in the popular imagination. Some of the figures we most associate with the boomer years were themselves from the Silent cohort. Figures such as Abbie Hoffman (1936), Jane Fonda (1937), Allen Ginsburg (1926), Bob Dylan (1941), and Stokely Carmichael (1940).
When criticism of the boomers began, the complaints about the silents were forgotten. In “battle of the generations” type commentary, they were generally lumped in either with the generation that came before or after.
In today’s atmosphere of back-and-forth barb-trading among the generations, the silents are left out. The class of ’57 probably doesn’t mind a bit.