Traditionalists and Conformists: The Silent Generation
There are six generations living in the U.S. today. Each spans a period of approximately 15-20 years or so. The oldest is the GI Generation (born 1901-1926). They are followed by the Silent Generation also referred to as the Conformists or Traditionalists (born 1927 – 1945). Then came the well-documented Baby Boomers (born 1946 – 1964) followed by Generation X (born 1965 – 1980) and then Generation Y also known as the Millennials (born 1981 – 2000). The most recent generation to emerge (born 2001 to the present) is being dubbed the iGeneration. They are also being referred to as Generation Z, plurals or Generation Wii.
So what is the purpose of labeling and defining generations? Most people in business, marketing and the media would say that the labels help them connect with and understand specific audiences. Called generational marketing, marketers use the trends and truisms for each group to customize their strategies in line with the values and qualities of the audience. For the media, the labels help to describe and ascribe cultural, social and political trends. But those labels are completely irrelevant to the people in those cohorts. The labels do nothing to shape the identity of the generations. It is life experience that shapes and defines them. Each generation is believed to share a host of qualities and characteristics that are a reflection of, reaction to, or rejection of events occurring whilst they were coming of age.
Indeed, it’s easy to overstate or over-generalize the qualities of a generation. Not everyone identifies with the labels of their generation. For example, the generation known as the Silent Generation, is viewed as one of traditionalists and conformists. Yet, much of what is now known about this generation shows that those labels may not be a perfect fit. While this generation may have followed many of the characteristics of the GI Generation before it, it also bucked many trends. And, given their net worth, it is a generation that businesses should understand well and engage.
Traditionalists and Conformists: The Silent Generation – Born 1927-1945
The Silent Generation, also referred to as the Traditionalists or Conformists, is the smallest generation of the last 100 years. Their parents — the GI Generation — had fewer children presumably due to the impact of major global events including WWI, the Great Depression and WWII. Given that they were proportionately the smallest generation, one might think they’d been labeled the Tiny Generation. Instead, on November 5, 1951, Time magazine used the term “Silent Generation” for the first time.
Why were they called the Silent Generation? Some believe it is because this generation grew up during a time when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was actively investigating any alleged disloyalty and subversive activities on the part of private citizens, public employees, and those organizations suspected of having Communist or Fascist ties. In conjunction with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s overzealous attempts to quash communist support in America, these circumstances made it dangerous for people to speak freely about opinions and beliefs that might be even slightly controversial. HUAC, which lasted from 1938 to 1959 (when it was denounced by President Truman as “the most un-American thing in the country today”), and McCarthyism were seen as assaults on political freedom in America. During those years, people became cautious about where they went and with whom they were seen. The American public was effectively ‘silenced.’
Perhaps, however, their silence had to do with what the generation had witnessed and experienced. The Silent Generation was the first to live in a world with atomic bombs. Globally, they came of age witnessing the spread of communism across Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean and the rise of the Cold War. They also experienced real wars, fighting in the Korean War and in the early days of the Vietnam Conflict. At home, they experienced the turmoil, marches, protests and sit-ins of the rising Civil Rights movement. Given the turmoil both at home and abroad, this may have contributed to their collective silence.
These events, however, do not account for their title of Conformists. This generation became known for conforming to the norms and values of the previous generation. For the most part, they did, adopting the GI Generation’s art, music, clothing and culture. They too were civic-minded, saved money and lived modestly. The Conformists benefited from a strong emphasis on education. In grade school, the gravest complaints of this cohort were about children passing notes and chewing gum in class. As kids, the so-called Conformists were largely obedient and disciplined. They too married for life and shunned divorce. Like the GI Generation, when men of the Silent Generation got a job with a company, they pledged loyalty to it and typically stayed with that company for life. They also responded well to leadership and direction. And like the women of the GI Generation, women of the Silent Generation generally stayed home to raise a family. The Silent Generation’s core values are identified as discipline, self-sacrifice, and cautiousness.
In many ways, the Conformists did conform. But, in other ways, they did not. Unlike their parents, they basked in a postwar glow that included a robust economy and low unemployment. Unlike the GI Generation, the Silent Generation had the economic prosperity to afford larger families, and had more children than their parents and grandparents, giving birth to the Baby Boomers. And just as they differed from their parents in starting families, they also differed in how they handled life after raising a family. Having hunkered down under desks during the Cuban missile crisis, the Silent Generation understood well the uncertainties of life. So, unlike their parents, they embraced retirement, preferring not to work until death like their parents.
Marketing to the Silent Generation Today
Today, the Silent Generation is comprised of about 20 million people in their 70s and 80s, and they are the richest retirees in history. According to Washington Monthly’s August 2015 article about wealth and generations, “…retired seventy-somethings today not only have seen their personal income net worth hold even or even continue to rise, they are also way better off financially than were seventy-somethings in the 1990s”. According to Wealth and Generation, “For this birth cohort of Americans, dramatic upward mobility, not stagnation, has been the norm.” Moreover, the Silent Generation has the greatest net worth of any generation in the U.S. today, swapping places with the Baby Boomer generation who held that position before the Great Recession began a decade ago. In their minds, conformity led to success.
Another way in which the Silent Generation is not like any past generation is that now, even in their 70s, the Silent Generation does not see itself as old. A Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends survey released in 2009 showed that 60% of respondents, age 65-plus, said they felt younger than their actual age — in many cases much younger. One third of respondents ages 65 to 74 said they felt 10 to 19 years younger than their age, and one in six felt at least 20 years younger than their actual age. Moreover, 78% of the respondents ages 65 to 74 said they did not feel old and neither did 61% of those age 75+. This is the first generation to experience this phenomenon, probably due in part to huge improvements in medical advances, focus on fitness and increased longevity.
How should organizations cater to a generation that is affluent but cautious, and who is old by conventional measures but whose self-perception and physical condition is not aligning with the standard meaning of what “old” is? First and foremost, unlike previous generations, they do not want to be perceived as old, sick, or disabled. They are active seniors, redefining what it means to age. When speaking to them, it is important to choose a spokesperson that they can relate to without exaggerating. Marketing materials should feature people and situations which show active and involved individuals of around that age, or perhaps slightly younger. But it should not show ridiculous scenarios such as a 75-year-old skiing or parasailing. That would come across as silly, condescending and pandering. Materials should be well-written as this cohort is well-educated and values good grammar. Also, because they are cautious, it is a good idea to incorporate proof points in materials to help them understand why a product or service is needed.
The Silent Generation also values a sense of connectedness and having a rich social life. Most said there are people other than family members on whom they can rely “for social activities and companionship.” But when asked the one thing they value most about getting older, 28% indicated that they valued “having more time with family” and 25% said they valued “spending time specifically with grandchildren”. With this in mind, businesses should consider products and services that enable and encourage Conformists to engage with grandchildren, and that includes activities that involve technology. According to a Nielsen article, the number of seniors actively using the Internet has increased by more than 55% in the last five years.
There are a few other things to keep in mind when speaking to this audience. The Silent generation is and has always been okay with delayed gratification. They also desire a sense of belonging and want to feel like they are part of something but also want to preserve a little privacy. They also value their time and don’t appreciate wasting it. Don’t assume the Silent Generation has more times on their hands just because they are retired. Most of all, be respecting when speaking with this generation. In a Pew survey, the Silent Generation indicated that one of the best things they experience from getting older is “getting more respect.” In that regard, they are very much like the GI Generation before them.
Tune in next week as we take a look at the biggest generation alive today, the Baby Boomers. Their sheer numbers make them a key audience for all businesses today.
Quote of the Week
“It does not have to be that the greatest generation is behind us. It does not have to be that our children will have a lower standard of living. It will be that way if we choose to believe that. I choose not to believe that.” Glenn Beck
© 2015, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.