Posted by: wrmcnutt | April 29, 2009

Generational Research I – The Silent Generation

There’s a hot topic in Adult Education today:  generational research and the Millennial Generation.  Folks want to know who they are and how AE classrooms should change to deal with their needs.  The problem is that very little research has been done on Adult Learners.  So to try to understand the Generations in the classroom, we end up turning to those people who have been doing generational reserach since World War II:  the marketing industry.  They believe that they’ve got a real firm grip on who we Americans are, and it’s interesting.

Fair warning:  generational research has it’s biases.  For starters, it paints with an incredibly broad brush.  Second, marketers are really only interested in people who have money to spend, so most marketing research only addresses the characteristics of the middle and upper classes.  With that in mind, let’s take a look at the four generations currently in the workplace and educational system.

Before we begin talking about the four generations active in the marketplace and in education today, it behooves us to have a quick hat tip to one more generation back.  These folks are called the G.I. Generation.  Most of them are gone now, but they had a profound impact on the generations to follow.  These people lived through the Great Depression and World War II.  As a result, they taught thier children to abhor waste.  They had a strong work ethic that they passed on to the next generation.  They also had an unshakeable optimism that any problem could be solved with sufficient work.

Thier children, the oldest generation in the workplace today, are often called the Silent Generation.   Born between 1923 to 1943, these folks mostly came of age in the early forties.  There are a surprising number of them remaining in the workplace today.  Now mostly retired, the Silent Generation was small.  During the darkest days of World War II it was considered a bad time to bring children into the world. The uncertainty of the time made waiting to have children seem wise.  With few members, the Silent Generation was not studied much, and less is known about them.  Marketers lumped them in with their parents. 

The Silents produced the Beat Poets, Martin Luther King, and Gloria Steinem.  Because there were so few of them, they were in a strong position to take advantage of the post-WWII prosperity boom.  They tend to be loyal to employers, have a strong work ethic, trust authority, and be set in thier ways.  They are slow to adapt to technological change and prefer traditional business and educational models.  They are also very comfortable working alone and in a top down chain-of-command.

Coming of age in the post-war boom of the 50’s, they are often dismissed as complacent.  When thier world view was forming, the US ecomony was dominant on the world stage, thier parents assured them that the old enemy was defeated, and it looked like there was little to accomplish.  Life was good.

Cultural touchstones for the Silent Generation include the atom bomb, the descent of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet launch of Sputnik, and the civil rights marches.  

They also remember the end of World War II as a childhood event.  My Mom’s memory of V. J. Day was that everybody in Atlanta was blowing their car horns, but they couldn’t.  The family car’s horn was broken. 

It is worthy of note that as Reagan and G.H.W. Bush were both of the G. I. Generation and Clinton, G.W. Bush, and Obama are all Boomers, the Silent Generation will not have produced a President of the United States, unless something very unusual happens in the next Presidential Election.

For reference:

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