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The Silent Generation and mental health

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD

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Who are the Silent Generation?

The Silent Generation (or “Silents”) are a group of people born between about 1928 and 1945. They fall between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers.

This generation’s name dates back to a 1951 magazine article describing young people of the time as “grave and fatalistic”—unlike their parents, whose “flaming youth” had taken place during the Roaring ’20s.1 Other names for Silents include “Builders” (due to their role shaping large parts of US society) and “children of the Great Depression.”

Younger Silents may share common experiences with older Boomers (for example, 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 serving in World War II).

Are generations real?

Generations are socially constructed categories, meaning their details (birthdate range, names, and formative events) are decided over time by experts and the public. Generations can be helpful ways of understanding others, but they have limits. Like all socially constructed categories, they’re most useful in the context of other shared social experiences, such as:

  • Family of origin
  • Age and stage of life
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Gender and sexuality
  • Ability and disability
  • Income and socioeconomic class
  • Occupation and workplace
  • Experience of pregnancy and/or parenthood
  • Relationship status
  • Religion or faith community
  • Immigration experience and/or status
  • Physical and mental health history

Silent Generation demographics

  • Race and ethnicity: When Silents were in their 20s and 30s, 84% were White and non-Hispanic.2 This percentage may have shifted over the years as older people of color immigrated to the United States. Generally speaking, though, this generation is much less diverse than the US as a whole.
  • Gender and sexuality: Silents grew up in a time when being LGBTQIA+ was stigmatized and even criminalized. A 2021 poll shows that only about 1% of people born before 1946 identify as LGBTQIA+.3 Forty-three percent of Silents believe same-sex marriage is bad for society; only 18% say it’s a good thing, and 38% say it doesn’t make a difference. Only 7% personally know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns.4
  • Education: Participation in higher ed has increased sharply since the Silents came of age. A study from 2017 reports that 15% of men and 9% of women born before 1946 had a bachelor’s degree or higher, while for Millennials (born in 1981 through 1986), 29% of men and 36% of women had completed at least four years of higher education.5
  • Wealth: People born before 1946 currently hold about 13% of household wealth in the US, according to 2022 Federal Reserve data. The last time they controlled over 50% was in 2003.6
  • Population percentage: US census data from 2019 shows that people born before 1946 make up less than 8% of the population. Even at their peak, Silents were a smaller generation compared to the Greatest Generation and the Boomers.7

The Silent Generation and mental illness

The Silent Generation grew up during traumatic global catastrophes of poverty, war, inequality, and violence. Many were taught to be “seen, not heard.” They may have witnessed or experienced domestic abuse, military combat, racist violence, or police brutality. In particular, Silents from marginalized groups encountered regular, everyday discrimination: They were rejected for jobs, denied legal protection, not allowed to live in certain neighborhoods, told to sit in the back of the bus, or refused service.

Silents had few opportunities to talk about their trauma in a healthy way. During the Great Depression and World War II, survival was the ultimate goal, and sacrifice was the greatest virtue. Many people stayed quiet about the emotional and mental difficulties they faced to help ensure their financial, social, physical, and relational survival—and they sometimes sacrificed their mental health in the process.

Effects of mental institutions

Talking about and seeking treatment for mental health concerns remains difficult or taboo for many Silents. When they came of age, mental illness was often viewed as a shameful moral failure instead of a health condition. People with severe symptoms were frequently sent to mental institutions; some facilities provided adequate care, while others provided little more than abuse and neglect. 

Over the last half of the 20th century, society moved away from institutionalization. Thousands of patients were discharged and facilities were closed. But while the era of institutionalization ended, stigma around mental health care remained.

The Silent Generation and PTSD

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness that can develop after you go through or witness trauma. Many of the disorder’s early names—“soldier’s heart,” “shell shock,” “battle fatigue”—came from military experience. When the American Psychological Association added PTSD to its diagnostic manual in 1980, it was partly due to Vietnam veterans’ stories and symptoms. However, anyone who goes through trauma can be diagnosed with PTSD—whether they’ve served in the military or not.

A 2017 survey found that nearly half of men born before 1946 were veterans, including members of both the Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation.8 Silents who’ve been through trauma—whether from war, abuse, or other causes—may have had PTSD symptoms but been unable to get diagnosed and treated.

Silents and aging

Aging is a natural part of life, but it still comes with physical, emotional, and mental challenges. Most Silents have lost parents, and many have had spouses, siblings, friends, and other loved ones pass away. They may worry more and more about their children and grandchildren. After retirement, they may struggle to fill their days with things they find meaningful.

Silents may have trouble adjusting to the losses of independence, ability, and health that aging can bring. Signs of dementia, in particular, can be both frightening and frustrating. 

As we age, it’s natural to think about our own mortality—and it’s important for us to know our current season of life is still meaningful. Many of us find new hobbies, new relationships, and new causes to champion. Some of us take steps to mend broken relationships and help others. Forgiveness and compassion can help Silents face age and mortality with greater peace.

The Silent Generation and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a huge toll on the Silent Generation. People over 85 are still at the highest risk for severe illness and death from the virus, especially if they aren’t vaccinated. In addition, nursing homes and care facilities may have policies on masking, vaccinations, or visitors that leave residents more susceptible to infection.

Many older adults were isolated from loved ones for months or years on end, missing out on precious time with family and friends. They may be grieving the death of a spouse, friend, or family member due to the virus. All these circumstances can increase risk of depression.

If you or a loved one are struggling, please consider the following resources:

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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