The Most Misnamed Generation

Posted inCreative Voices

The death of Gordon Moore, the Intel co-founder and semiconductor pioneer famous for “Moore’s Law,” is the latest reminder that the so-called Silent Generation is insanely misnamed. The generation born between about 1926 and 1945 is the one that changed the world in politics, science, art, sports, and business. The so-called Silents led the civil rights and second-wave feminist movements, built Silicon Valley and the New Hollywood, developed pop art and rock music. Silents walked on the moon.

The 1951 Time article credited with popularizing the term Silent Generation declared that, “Today’s generation, either through fear, passivity or conviction, is ready to conform.” But it also reported signs of discontent. “This generation suffers from lack of worlds to conquer. Its fathers, in a sense, did too well,” said one young man. A young woman lamented, “The individual is almost dead today, but the young people are unaware of it. They think of themselves as individuals, but really they are not.”

In a relatively small generation, a few creative dissidents could catalyze change. Individual Silents faced less competition for attention and resources than members of larger generations. They also enjoyed the possibilities opened up after World War II, whether American prosperity or the weakening of class structures in Britain. Silents became the leaders that the Baby Boomers, arguably a more conformist bunch, followed.

Although there are more famous Silents, Stewart Brand may be their quintessential representative. He’s always slightly ahead of the curve. Back in the 1990s, he observed to me that his generation didn’t think business was bad, even when they were rebelling against corporate conformity. So they were naturally placed to lead an entrepreneurial revolution. (I’m remembering a very old conversation, so take the details with a grain of salt.) Stewart is the person who told me about when it was a brand new company, leading to this article. His then-new book How Buildings Learn was one of the first titles I ordered online and it had a significant influence on The Future and Its Enemies. My decidedly un-hippie father, born in 1934, was an early buyer of The Whole Earth Catalog. Its “access to tools” philosophy anticipated our technology-empowered DIY culture (see my 2007 take on the trend, which has only gotten stronger).

And here’s another Silent recently in the news.

About those aviator shades

My Foreign Policy article on Silent Generation President Joe Biden’s aviator sunglasses is now out and available for comparison to the ChatGPT version. I don’t love the headline, which conflates appearance and reality (or A&R, as we called it when discussing Renaissance literature in college). I encourage you to read the whole thing, using an incognito window if you hit the paywall. Here’s a excerpt:

In Vanity Fair in August 2020, Erin Vanderhoof skewered Biden as insufficiently radical, writing that the glasses “stand in as a symbol for why so many young people feel disillusioned by the candidate. Six decades ago, Biden picked an accessory and he has stuck with it ever since … . It seems to reflect his approach to ideas like bipartisanship and respect for norms.” 

But that continuity—including the promise of respect for norms—appealed to much of the electorate, which wasn’t ready to write off the United States as an irredeemably awful country or make a virtue of demonizing their fellow citizens. Like Trump’s MAGA hats, Biden’s sunglasses hark back to the triumphs of the 20th century but without the sense of loss. Aviators suggest an America that is feisty, nonconformist, powerful, competent, and ultimately good. Like the classic lenses, that vision of the country goes in and out of fashion but never disappears.