Skip to main content

Lessons Learned from the Silent Generation

By Chau Espenson, Racial Equity Coordinator
February 28, 2017
Social Share

Over the past few years, I have lost several relatives who were born in the 1930s. Most recently, a great-aunt, who was like a grandmother to me, passed away. While the losses of my other relatives significantly affected me, my great-aunt’s death weighed more heavily on me as I realized that an end to a generation was nearing. The “Silent Generation” – those born in the mid-to-late 1920s and early-to-mid 1940s – was a term coined by Time magazine in a 1951 article describing them as a group that worked hard but kept quiet. Members of this generation are also viewed as ambitious, with a high need for achievement and the strong desire to help others.

Characteristics of the Silent Generation

The characteristics I noticed most in these relatives were their hardworking ethics, acceptance of differences, and the belief in equity for all. My great-aunt especially exemplified these characteristics. When she arrived in the United States from Vietnam, she did not speak English well and did not have a job or any income. She utilized the skills she had to open a grocery store business. Her customers were racially and ethnically diverse and she felt it was important that these customers had access to items that pertained to them. She recognized the difficulty as an individual to acquire certain items because of distributor restrictions like the requirement of ordering in bulk quantities. She would spend time with her customers and engage in conversations to better understand their needs in order to stock the store accordingly. She also acknowledged that there were aspects of other cultures that she didn’t understand so hired employees from the same backgrounds as her customers so they could better relate and help bridge the communication gap.

Giving Back to the Community

Giving back to the community was important to my great-aunt because of the initial support she had received. In our interactions, she talked about how education was key to helping children succeed. She wanted all children to have equitable means to school-related supplies and provided small scholarships to low-income families to help them purchase these items.

Reflecting On Generational Values

I can’t speak for other families and their experience with this generation but in my family, there were great values that were taught to me that I rarely reflected upon until now. Sometimes it takes a loss to remember what you have. If you have the opportunity to connect with a member of the Silent Generation, I encourage you to have a conversation. You may find yourself reflecting on things you too have forgotten. Remember that we will not have access to this generation for much longer so your opportunity to interact with them will pass by soon.

3 Things You Can Do to Learn from the Silent Generation

  • Seek out stories and opinions from those in other generations whether they be written, video or in-person
  • Practice listening to understand and not listening to respond
  • Practice empathy and encourage it to others

Additional Opportunities for Learning

Attend one of our upcoming racial justice and public policy workshops hosted by YWCA Minneapolis’ Racial Justice department.

View Upcoming Workshops