The Silent Generation, "The Lucky Few"
Neil Howe Contributor
Arts & Letters This is part three of a seven-part series examining the rising (or falling) living standards of successive U.S. generations. Read part one here.
The Silent Generation (born 1925-42) today comprises roughly 20 million adults in their 70s and 80s. Their age location in history sandwiches them awkwardly between two better-known generations: They were born just too late to be World War II heroes and just too early to be New Age firebrands. In their personal lives, this age location has been a source of tension. By the time the Silent were entering midlife, they spearheaded the divorce revolution and popularized (thanks, Gail Sheehy) the term “midlife crisis.” But in their economic lives, this age location has been very good to them—and given them a lifetime ride on the up-escalator coming off the American High. The Silent started out as the children of crisis. They grew up while older people were fighting wars and making great sacrifices on their behalf. Childrearing in America, already more protective for the G.I.s, approached the point of suffocation. When the Silent began coming of age after World War II, they tiptoed cautiously in a post-crisis social order that no one wanted to disturb. Unlike the G.I.s, they rarely talked about “changing the system,” but instead about “working within the system.” Because they didn’t want anything to go on their “permanent records” and kept their heads down during the McCarthy era, Time gave them the label “Silent” in a famous 1951 essay. They were also careful in the labor market. Fortune’s story on the “College Class of ‘49” was subtitled “Taking No Chances.” When they went to job interviews, their first questions were about pension plans. They emulated their powerful G.I. elders by marrying and having babies incredibly young—in fact, younger on average than any other generation in American history. Unlike the G.I.s, the Silent didn’t have to wait for a depression or war to end. A new “booming” economy was ready to join right out of school. Demographer Richard Easterlin, in his 1980 book Birth and Fortune, called them the “Lucky” or “Fortunate” generation for their great timing. Easterlin noted that a remarkable feature of the Sputnik era was how the typical young man could earn more by age 30 than the average wage for men of all ages in his profession—and could certainly live better than most “retired” elders. He also noted that since the mid-1970s, the economic conditions facing young late-wave Boomers were becoming much tougher.