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The Silent Generation? Sez Who!

by Julia Sneden


Journalists seem to like labeling groups of young people, doling out names like “the Me Generation,” or “Gen X’ers,” or “the Baby Boomers.” These handles are convenient, but it seems to me that imputing a collective personality to all members of an age group isn’t defensible. It may be catchy, but it’s just plain silly.

I should confess up front to being sensitive about the practice because I detest the label some eager newsman pinned on those of us who were of high school and college age during the 1950’s: “The Silent Generation.” What a bunch of hooey!

It’s an appellation I have come to hate, implying as it does that we stood around in our Peter Pan collars and matching sweater sets, not noticing the injustices of the world, or, if we noticed them, looking the other way.

The first five years after World War II were full of excitements: the boys came home and enrolled in college in unprecedented numbers, and the economy boomed. Materials like rubber and metal and lumber were once again available for the manufacture of cars and bicycles and new housing. Shortages of coffee and sugar and butter and meat, all of which had been rationed, suddenly stopped, and the market shelves were full again. People were busy getting back to normal, or better than normal, and there was a general sense of release and rejoicing.

But under the euphoria, times were beginning to change. Soldiers who had grown up in one kind of society had been exposed to other customs and cultures. Both blacks and whites began to be aware of new possibilities. Plain-spoken President Truman integrated the military by Presidential order in 1948. The booming economy gave impetus to a lively job market.

By the early ‘50’s, there were major changes in the wind. McCarthy’s demagoguery, for instance, opened discussions all over America, and his censure by the senate in 1954 sounded the death knell for his witch-hunting tactics.

I cannot speak to how things were in other parts of the country, but where I lived, there was a great deal of school time spent on the study of government and the responsibility of citizenship. Our young teachers, many of whom were recently in the armed services or were active in the home front’s war effort, were intensely idealistic. So were our clergy. They engaged us in discussions of ethics and pointed out injustices. They encouraged us to read newspapers and to listen to the radio or television accounts of important events.

They also provided us with new experiences. I remember how the youth group at my church spent time with our peers at the nearest synagogue, learning songs in Hebrew, sharing a meal, and listening to testimony about the Holocaust.

My church also paired with others in our diocese (both black and white) to provide a team of kids for a mission trip that renovated a tumble-down house, part of an anti-poverty project. We stayed with the parishioners of a church near Fort Ord, a large army base in central California. The remodeling we did was of a former whorehouse that stood just over the property line of Ft. Ord, and the fact that every single room had an outside entrance gave us teenagers some sniggery moments. But we got the work done, and the spiffed-up house was given to a deserving family.

We weren’t especially vocal about our good deeds, and the newspapers certainly never recorded them, but our participation planted in our hearts and minds the importance of active involvement in our society.

Then the ‘60’s came along, and suddenly the press was avidly reporting on the armies of youngsters seeking social justice. That’s when they, the journalists of the establishment, looked back and labeled my generation “The Silent Generation.”

I beg to differ. Who do they think inspired those kids? It was their young teachers (my generation, thank you) and clergy. Those of us who had stepped out into the working world had suddenly found our post-War idealism stomped on by prejudice. Color, sex, ethnicity, privilege, all mattered in a way we had never before realized.

A generation of young women who had seen their mothers take over jobs and run families while their men were at war, and who were themselves educated and capable, applied for jobs, only to find themselves suddenly trivialized. We were told we were over-educated and under-experienced for the available jobs; asked only if we could type; and – a sure killer – whether we intended to marry, the assumption being that if we did, we’d be lost to the work force forever.

Young men of color who had used the GI Bill to go through college found themselves unable to vote or even, in many cases, to get drivers’ licenses, never mind obtaining jobs equal to their abilities and education.

No wonder feminism surged back with a vengeance. No wonder civil rights marches and rallies sprang up. And who gave voice to those problems? Who organized those protests? It was the members of “The Silent Generation” – people like Betty Friedan and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gloria Steinem, that’s who. We were anything but silent. It was our voices that inspired those wonderful ‘60’s kids who stood up and said “Enough!” in such droves.

During the ‘60’s, my generation may have been busy making its way in the world, but although we weren’t free to do things like joining mass marches during Spring Break, we engaged in activities like organizing food drives during the voter-registration reprisals in Mississippi; we wrote checks and signed petitions; after work, we attended evening meetings of concerned citizens; we were active in our churches and synagogues; our eager, young reporters covered the marches and protests and wrote about them with passion; we campaigned vigorously (for both parties) and we voted in record numbers.

I would never belittle the contributions made by those youngsters of the ‘60’s. They were incredibly brave and purposeful. But they were hardly alone. The not-so-silent generation was right there supporting them, despite the ex post facto label stuck on us.

And now that my generation, the generation just ahead of the Baby Boomers, has reached retirement age and more, I doubt that anyone would refer to us as “Silent.” Considering the amount of protest and complaint over something like the Medicare Drug Benefit plans, or the clout of groups like the AARP, I submit that the only time this generation can safely be called “Silent” will be when the last one of us is 6 feet under.

Until then, the motto is “Loud and Clear!”


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