The Silent Generation and mental health
Reviewed by Diane Warns
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 10/13/2022
What Is the Silent Generation?
The Silent Generation is a generational cohort currently consisting of seniors in their mid-70s, 80s, and early 90s. They are situated between the Greatest Generation (the generation that served during World War II) and the Baby Boomers.
The earliest use of the name “the Silent Generation” comes from a 1951 TIME magazine article in which the author views the youth of the day as “silent” compared to the “flaming youth” of their parents who came of age during the Roaring ’20s.1 Other names for the Silent Generation include:
- Traditionalists: Traditionalists can refer to the Silent Generation specifically, or it may sometimes be used to refer to both the Silent Generation and the Greatest Generation at once.
- Builders: McCrindle Research, which also coined the name Generation Alpha for children born after 2010, refers to Silents as Builders due to their role in building large parts of American society.
- Children of the Great Depression: The Silent Generation is the last generation to have personal memories of the Great Depression.
- Radio babies: Marking the technology of the day, most of the Silent Generation grew up with a radio in the house, not a television.
- “The Lucky Few”: Author Elwood Carlson called Silents “the Lucky Few” because most didn’t serve in World War II but still got to enjoy the booming economy of the 1950s as young adults.2
When Was the Silent Generation Born?
Most experts agree that people born in the late 1920s through the end of World War II are considered Silents. A standard date range is 1928 through 1945, although some argue for an earlier starting date, such as 1925. Generally speaking, what unifies the Silent Generation is that they were born before or during World War II, but they did not serve in it.
Typically, between generational cutoffs exist microgenerations known as cusper generations. These cusper generations may exhibit characteristics of both larger generational cohorts.
The Silent Generation has no named cusper generations between itself and the Greatest Generation or the Baby Boomers. However, it’s important to note that younger Silents may find themselves sharing more in common with older Boomers, such as being subject to the draft during the Vietnam War, while older Silents may have more in common with younger members of the Greatest Generation, such as military service during World War II.
Silent Generation Facts
- Race & ethnicity: According to Pew Research Center, when the Silent Generation was in their 20s and 30s, 84% of them were non-Hispanic White.3 This percentage may have shifted over the years as older people of color immigrated to the United States. Generally speaking, though, the Silent Generation is significantly less diverse than the United States as a whole, which is on average 62% White.
- Gender & sexuality: A Gallup poll from 2021 shows that only about 1% of people born before 1946 identify as LGBTQIA+.4 The Silent Generation grew up during a time in which identifying as LGBTQIA+ was stigmatized and even criminalized. Silents are also the largest group to believe that same-sex marriage is bad for society (43%), with only 18% saying it’s a good thing, and 38% saying it doesn’t make a difference.5 Only 7% of Silents personally know someone who uses gender nonconforming pronouns.
- Education: Pew Research Center data shows that 32% of men and 22% of women born before 1946 earned at least a bachelor’s degree or higher. 16% of men and 17% of women born before 1946 did not finish high school, more than any other generation.
- Wealth: According to 2020 financial data from the Federal Reserve, people born before 1946 currently hold just over 15% of household wealth in the US.6 The last time they controlled the majority of wealth was in 2003. Since then, Baby Boomers have had control of most of the wealth, gaining a majority of control in 2008.
- Population percentage: US Census data from 2010 shows that people born before 1946 make up less than 8% of the US population.7 Even at their peak, Silents were a smaller generation compared to the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers.
Major Historical Impacts
The Great Depression
The Great Depression lasted from 1929 until 1939, hitting its lowest point in 1933. Although some Silents weren’t yet born, most were children whose first formative experiences occurred during a global economic crisis. A depressed economy was the only world most Silents knew until the depression was replaced by the global chaos and uncertainty of World War II.
World War II
Although most Silents didn’t serve in the war, it affected every aspect of their daily lives. Many Silents have a personal memory of hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech over the radio, similar to later generations’ experience of 9/11.8 They may remember rationing food or their families starting victory gardens; they may remember their fathers or older brothers being drafted while their mothers and older sisters answered the call to join the workforce.
The effects of the war lasted long after victory in 1945. Many had friends, family, or loved ones who had served overseas and gave their lives. For those who did return home, Silents may remember the veterans in their lives struggling with what we would today call posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Younger Silents who were born during the war may even have memories of meeting their fathers for the first time as toddlers, separated due to years of deployment until the war was over.
After World War II, the threat remained that war would occur again—with even deadlier consequences. There were only a few short years of peace before the Cold War began in earnest, with the Soviet Union successfully detonating an atom bomb in 1949. Communism was viewed as an apocalyptic threat to the United States.
This led to US involvement in the Korean War from 1950 through 1953. Unlike in World War II, Silents were no longer young enough to avoid being drafted into military service. Many found themselves answering the call to service in a war with more ambiguous goals and less public support than the war their parents had fought in just a few years earlier.
The Red Scare
The Cold War was a fight concerning foreign policy and the potential limits of diplomacy, but it also became a domestic issue in the form of the Red Scare. The fear and anxiety of Red Scare manifested most famously as McCarthyism, in which Senator Joseph McCarthy led the charge via the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate anyone who may be disloyal to democracy and the United States.
During the Red Scare, the wrong words or actions could cost someone their home, their job, and their financial security. The Silent Generation learned to be even more “silent” due to McCarthyism.
The Civil Rights Movement
Although some Silents felt even more silenced during the 1950s, others were finding their voice and using it to fight for a more equal society.
Culturally, the Civil Rights movement is often associated with the Baby Boomers, but it was actually the Silents who led the fight.9 Notable Silents who fought for civil rights and the rights of other marginalized groups include:
- Martin Luther King Jr.
- John Lewis
- Jesse Jackson
- Audre Lorde
- Gloria Steinem
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg
- Marsha P. Johnson
- Harvey Milk
The Rise of Modern Technology
Silents witnessed the dizzying technological progress of the 20th century firsthand. Many older Silents, especially those in rural areas or poorer communities, were born into homes without electricity. Just a few decades later, they watched the moon landing on affordable television sets in homes with refrigerators in the kitchen and automobiles in the garage, among other modern marvels.
By the time of the moon landing, Silents were in their twenties, thirties, and early forties. They had enjoyed in one lifetime the kind of technological progress that usually took generations to build—and they were only halfway through. Technology continued to improve at an exponential pace as Silents entered middle age, retired, and began to enjoy their senior years.
Personal computers, flatscreen televisions, arcades, at-home video game consoles, VHS tapes, DVDs, GPS navigation, satellite radio, internet cafes, laptops, smartphones, streaming services—most Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials remember a time when such technology was novel, but only Silents remember a time when a simple light switch still felt like luxury.
Silent Generation & Mental Health Stigma
Silence, Survival & Sacrifice
Like their name suggests, Silents were raised to value silence when facing the emotional and mental difficulties of life. Many Silents were raised to be “seen, not heard.”
The Silent Generation grew up during traumatic global catastrophes of poverty, war, inequality, and violence. They may have witnessed or experienced domestic violence, combat, lynchings, or police brutality. Silents from marginalized groups regularly experienced more insidious forms of everyday discrimination, such as getting rejected for a job, being told to sit in the back of the bus, being denied a home in a certain neighborhood, or being refused service due to their gender, race, religion, or sexuality.
For many Silents, there were no opportunities to speak about these traumas in a healthy way. Silence was often their only available coping strategy. Growing up during the Great Depression and World War II, survival was the ultimate goal, and sacrifice was the greatest virtue. Many Silents used silence as a way to ensure their financial, social, physical, and relational survival—and sometimes sacrificed their mental health in the process.
How Silents Talk About Mental Illness
Many of the standard diagnoses, processes, and treatments in mental health care that we take for granted today were still being researched and developed as Silents were coming of age.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was not developed until the 1960s.10 The American Psychiatric Association (APA) listed “homosexuality” as a mental health disorder in its authorative diagnostic manual, the DSM, from 1952 until 1973. The term “posttraumatic stress disorder” didn’t exist in the DSM until its third edition in 1980. “Postpartum depression” was not included until the fourth edition in 1994.
Because of this, mental illness was often viewed as a shameful moral failure instead of a health condition. People with severe cases were sent to mental institutions, which could vary significantly in terms of patient care. Some provided adequate health care, while others provided little more than abuse and neglect.
Over time, society moved toward deinstitutionalization, and around 487,000 people were discharged from mental institutions from 1955 until 1994. However, just because mental illness was deinstitutionalized doesn’t mean it was destigmatized. For many Silents, talking about and seeking treatment for mental health concerns remains difficult or even taboo to this day.
Silent Generation & PTSD
According to Pew Research Center, nearly half of all men born before 1946 are veterans.11 This includes members of the Greatest Generation, who served in World War II. However, it also includes members of the Silent Generation, who may have served in the Korean War, Vietnam War, or the Gulf War and related conflicts (as well as other service).
The history of PTSD is closely correlated with the history of military service. Many early names for PTSD came from military experience,12 such as:
- Soldier’s heart
- Shell shock
- Battle fatigue
- Combat stress reaction (CSR)
In addition to military service, other traumas can result in PTSD. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 7% to 8% of people in the US will have PTSD at some point in their lives.13
However, veterans are at an even greater risk for PTSD.14 An estimated 31% of male veterans and 27% of female veterans of the Vietnam War were predicted to have experienced PTSD at some point in their lives. Roughly 12% of Gulf War veterans and 14% of veterans of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq surveyed had current diagnoses of PTSD.
It’s likely that many Silents, particularly veterans, experienced symptoms of PTSD at some point in their lives, but may not have had knowledge of or access to diagnosis and treatment.
Silent Generation & Aging
Aging is a natural part of life, but it still comes with real physical, emotional, and mental challenges. Most Silents at this point have lost one or both parents and may anticipate experiencing more losses of family and friends. They may increasingly worry about their children and grandchildren. After retirement, they may struggle to fill their days with something they find meaningful.
As we age, it is natural to think about one’s own mortality. Many Silents may find it difficult to adjust to less independence and limited capacity resulting from new or worsening health conditions. Signs of dementia may frighten and frustrate Silents.
It’s important for Silents to know that their current season of life is still meaningful. Many people find new hobbies, new relationships, and new causes to champion in later seasons of life. Some take steps to mend broken relationships and do right by others. Forgiveness and compassion can help Silents face age and mortality with greater peace.
Silent Generation & COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has perhaps affected the Silent Generation the most. As the highest-risk group for infection, hospitalization, and death, many Silents have struggled to protect themselves from the virus.15 Silents in nursing homes or other care facilities may have had little to no say on policies regarding masking, vaccinations, or visitors, potentially leaving them even more susceptible to infection.
Many Silents have been isolated from loved ones for over a year and a half, missing out on precious time with their children and grandchildren. They may have experienced grief over the death of a spouse, friend, or family member due to the virus. All of these challenges can increase a person’s risk for depression.
If you or a loved one are struggling with depression, please consider the following resources:
- SAMHSA National Helpline
- Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
- 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Are Generations Real?
It is important to note that generations are socially constructed categories. Specific details about each generation, such as date range, formative historical events, and even the name of the generation itself, are all finalized over time by a mix of expert and public opinion.
Strauss-Howe Generational Theory
The Strauss-Howe generational theory states that generations occur in a four-stage cycle, with each generation lasting around 20 to 25 years. Each generation corresponds with a “turning,” which is a change in society and culture. The generations that come of age during a specific turning adopt a corresponding archetype.
A typical Strauss-Howe generational cycle would look like this:
- High: Society is functioning as it was built. This turning produces the idealist archetype, also known as the Prophet (currently Baby Boomers and eventually Generation Alpha).
- Awakening: Society begins to question why it was built the way it was and whether or not it actually functions. This turning produces the reactive archetype, also known as the Nomad (currently Gen X).
- Unraveling: Society begins to lose its ability to function as it was built. This turning produces the civic archetype, also known as the Hero (currently Millennials).
- Crisis: Society falls apart and is rebuilt to function in a new way. This turning produces the adaptive archetype, also known as the Artist (currently Gen Z and previously the Silent Generation).
The Limits of Generational Theory
While generations can be helpful ways of understanding others, they have their limits. Too often, generations can be reduced to stereotypes or confused with specific stages of life. Like all socially constructed categories, generations are most useful in the context of other demographics and shared social experiences, such as:
- Age and stage of life
- Race and ethnicity
- Relationship/marital status
- Ability and disability
- Occupation and workplace
- Family of origin
- Experience of pregnancy and/or parenthood
- Income and socioeconomic class
- Religion or faith community
- Immigration experience and/or status
- Physical health history
- Mental health history
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.
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