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02 Aug 2023

All silent on the generation front


As far as most people are concerned retirement communities are places where so-called old people reside.

Behind village gates an interesting phenomenon is taking place. To date there has not been much talk about the occurrence possibly because the area of focus involves one group of people known as The Silent Generation. And another dubbed the Baby Boomers.

Those who think that these ‘elders’ are cut from the same cloth, in particular the even younger generations involved with their wellbeing and care, are in for a surprise.

While the groups may share older age in common, their world views, life experiences, expectations couldn’t be more different. The further irony is that this group known as The Silent Generation are actually the parents of many of the so-called Baby Boomers.

So who are these two generations living as one in retirement communities? And why are their experiences and outlooks frequently quite different?

The term “Silent Generation” (those born 1928-1945) was first documented in a 1951 Time magazine article, which claimed that the most startling fact about this generation was its silence.

The oldest members of this generation were born at or near the beginning of the Great Depression. They were children during World War II and came of age during the 1950s and 60s. This generation is significantly smaller than their predecessors, those of the Greatest Generation (born 1900 – 1927), and smaller than the next generation, the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964).

Many scholars believe that the Silent Generation’s low birth rate was due to the uncertainty and difficult conditions of the time, which meant that fewer people felt secure in starting families and raising children.

United States historian Robert Smith (born 1926) notes: “By comparison with the Flaming Youth of their fathers and mothers, today's younger generation (meaning the silent ones) is a still, small flame. Youth today is waiting for the hand of fate to fall on its shoulders, meanwhile working fairly hard and saying almost nothing. The most startling fact about the generation is its silence. With some rare exceptions, youth is nowhere near the rostrum. It does not issue manifestoes, make speeches or carry posters. It has been called the "Silent Generation." But what does the silence mean? What, if anything, does it hide? Or are youth's elders merely hard of hearing?”
Though there is a degree of generalisation members of this ‘silent’ cohort share similar attributes and characteristics, says Smith.

The Silent Generation is thrifty. Members of this generation were born at a time when, because of war rationing and economic uncertainty, some of their parents could barely afford to feed them. This tragic situation led to a new way of thinking about resources, and these children found themselves raised with thriftiness in mind.

The Silent Generation is respectful. Members of this generation typically have a deep respect for authority. They often worked in the same job or company for the majority of their careers. They do not question authority, always being grateful for anything done for them or with them.

The Silent Generation is loyal. Members of this generation are not only loyal to their careers but also to their religious beliefs, their relationships, and their families. They value stability and likewise are stable and dependable. They tolerate things they don’t necessarily agree with when they see the situation is favoured by others. They tolerate personal discomfort as they consider it selfish and taking from others to ask for assistance or to complain.

The Silent Generation is determined. This generation experienced many difficult times and challenges. Survival required grit and strength and a strong sense of determination. The oft used expression to describe this attitude and behaviour was ‘keep quiet and put up with’.

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Date Published: August 2023

To be reviewed: August 2026

In a New Zealand context health professionals Drs Ngaire Kerse and Lynne Taylor (2022) believe resources and reforms are conspicuously silent on an over-looked group of New Zealanders; namely older people

Many thousands of words, they say, have been written and uttered about the health reforms and the 2022 Budget, but precious few have mentioned the invisible New Zealanders.

“They are invisible because they are largely silent, having come of age in a generation thankful for small mercies and suspicious of grand gestures. We are talking about older New Zealanders.”

“Older people hold our wisdom, contribute to society, families and whānau in many ways and we cherish them.”
“For decades New Zealand has known that our population is ageing. But over the course of those decades, we have not done nearly enough to prepare for what is coming.” By 2028 around 19 per cent of New Zealanders will be older than 65 years (Stats NZ, 2018 Census).

The New Zealand population aged 85+ years (88,000 in 2020) is projected to increase to around 318,000 by 2048, and up to around 513,000 by 2073 (Stat NZ 2018 Census - Projections).

Over there, say a prayer that the Yanks are coming

The Silent Generation had an earlier experience of living in communities with some inhabitants coming from very different backgrounds and cultures. This experience would definitely have further enhanced the generation’s ability to cope with differences and remain silent in the process. While the New Zealand armed forces were overseas (as part of the swelling New Zealand armed forces at that time) the Americans came down under.

At any one time between June 1942 and mid-1944 there were between 15,000 and 45,000 American servicemen in camp in New Zealand. That is the equivalent of the current population of Lower Hutt.

The American soldier found himself ‘deep in the heart of the South Seas’, in the words of his Army issue pocket guide. He (mostly) usually came here either before or immediately after experiencing the horror of war on a Pacific Island, and he found a land of milk and honey (literally), of caring mothers and ‘pretty girls’. Little wonder that in later years author Leon Uris would write a novel about the experience (Battle Cry) and Hollywood would make a film (Until They Sail) with Paul Newman as the main actor and representative heart-throb.

For the host people, now in the third year of the anxieties and deprivation of wartime, the arrival of thousands of charming, well-fed young Americans with smiles on their faces and money in their pockets was like a Hollywood romance come briefly to life. New Zealanders too have recalled the experience in novels and a television drama (such as A String of Pearls by Joan Ellis).

What gave the encounter its special quality was that the two societies were sufficiently similar to communicate easily, but sufficiently different to find each other intriguing. They both were former British colonies with a frontier past. Both believed in democracy, civil liberties and the capitalist way of life. Most people in both countries spoke English as their mother tongue. And in December 1941 the two nations, each with a Pacific coastline, found themselves at war with a common foe Japan.

So the ‘American invasion’ (as New Zealanders affectionately called it) brought a considerable clash of cultures. While Kiwi and Yankee spoke the same language, they did so in different accents. Though they shared a fondness for owning cars, they drove them on opposite sides of the road. The meeting of these two cultures – similar, yet different-had its ups and downs.

The expression over paid, over dressed, over sexed, and over here became a catch cry of complaint but also gratitude for countries like New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom that had the US military as guests.

Boomer times
So what of that other group…as in the Baby Boomers (born 1946 – 1964)? And how different really are they from any other, including the Silent, generation?

Find out more in the next edition of the Selwyn Digest.