Kirt Sechooler April, 1996
While the inexorable progression of technological development has driven the Industrial
Age, a second factor continually exerts an influence on human affairs equally as powerful
as that relentless technological advance. This second factor is demographic change. And to
ascertain the full impact of this second great historical force, one has only to go back
in time to the 1950s, the decade of calm that proceeded the turbulent "1960s."
The Lost Generation & The 1950s
Four decades ago, back in the 1950s, the mature adults in American society were members of
the Lost Generation. We tend to think of generations only in relation to a specific time.
The Lost Generation, for example, is permanently associated in our memory with the
"Roaring Twenties". But the truth is that a generation's history is not limited
to a particular moment, or decade, in time; rather each and every generation lives out its
life over the course of an entire generational life span. The collective life of the Lost
Generation encompasses much more then the 1920s. The history of the Lost Generation, in
actuality, is a great American saga, stretching out over the entire first half of the
twentieth century. The Lost Generation thus included not only Hemingway and F. Scott
Fizgerald, the men whose early lives gave their generation its name, but it also included
Truman and Eisenhower as well, the men whose leadership later in life exemplified the Lost
Generation as mature adults.
The Lost generation was born approximately in the years between 1885 and 1905. Born
largely into a world of small towns and rural circumstances, the Losts came of age in a
newly urban American. This was the generation who in their youth fought in World War One;
after the war, as young adults, they rushed headlong into the Roaring Twenties. Following
the Twenties," a decade as tumultuous as the 1960s, the Losts then faced the
catastrophe of the Great Depression. Over the course of their lives, members of the Lost
generation lived through as much fundamental change as any generation could have possibly
The Conservative 1950s
Naturally the great historical events experienced by the Lost generation in their earlier
days shaped the values and attitudes that they brought to their maturity; and just as
naturally, the values and attitudes of those later years shaped the nation in the 1950s.
The Lost Generation, having lived through the wild economic speculation of the 1920s and
then suffering the full force of the Great Depression of the 1930s, had by the 1950s
become socially and economically cautious and conservative. This basic conservative
outlook produced very real economic policies.
During the Eisenhower years (1953 -1960), for example, the understandable attitude of
the Lost Generation resulted directly in the establishment of traditionally tight monetary
and fiscal policies by the Administration. These policies, in turn, produced a period of
very low inflation, unfortunately; and inevitably, the era's low inflation was gained at
the expense of comparatively low rates of job formation. By the end of that decade, it was
clear that these policies had become excessive, producing recessions in 1958 and 1960.
Richard Nixon is, in fact, reportedly to have believed that these two economic downturns
were responsible for his loss to John Kennedy in 1960, in the closest contest in American
The GI Generation Replaces the Lost
John F. Kennedy was the first member of the GI Generation to become President, and his
election signaled the beginning of the massive changes that would transform America in the
1960s. Certainly, it would be a vast over simplification, however, to believe that America
moved from the highly traditional society of the 1950s to the tumultuous 1960s simply
because JFK replaced Ike as President. Obviously, something far greater then the role of
any single individual had to be involved in changes as fundamental as those that swept
over America in the 1960s.
The Demographics of the 1960s
To reveal the real forces behind the great changes of the 1960s, certain basic numbers
need to be understood. As was just stated, the Lost Generation was born approximately in
the years between 1885 and 1905. This means that the median birth year of the Losts was
1895, half way between 1885 and 1905. An individual born in the year 1895 would have been
65 years of age in 1960. Thus the tremendous changes that transformed this country in the
1960s took place, not simply because Kennedy succeeded Eisenhower as President, but
because the GI Generation replaced the Lost as leaders throughout America and because
other just as far reaching demographic changes also transpired in the 1960s.
Enter: The Silent Generation
As the Lost Generation retired and the GIs replaced them as the mature adult leaders of
America, the Silent Generation, the generation born approximately between 1927 and the end
of the Second World War, the generation that came of age in the late forties and fifties,
arose to fill the GIs position as the young adults in society. The 1960s was dominated by
this new demographic configuration just as completely as the 1950s had been controlled by
the previous configuration in which the Lost Generation were the mature adults and GIs the
The Silents as Followers
The Lost generation had inaugurated the Automotive-Petroleum Mass Suburbanization Age in
the post World War Two period, with everything from the GI Bill, passed in Truman's
Administration, to the National Highway Act of the Eisenhower years. But their caution and
fundamental fiscal conservatism was out of step with the new demographic configuration of
the 1960s. While the GIs had been led by Losts throughout their early lives, now at a
comparatively early age they took over the country; and the Silents, who naturally looked
up to the GIs as the heroes of World War Two, were only to eager to follow this new
generation of leaders into a new era. The great demographic change described here
overturned the fiscal conservatism that had dominated the 1950s and American than exploded
into the 1960s and a period of truly extraordinary economic activity.
Generations and Technocycles
The great changes that took place as the nation moved from the 1950s into the 1960s were
not totally unprecedented, however, and America could have probably accommodated them in
due course, except for the fact that something truly unprecedented did occur in the 1960s.
In each of the great technological cycles of the past, in the Textile Cotton Cycle, in
the Railroad Cycle and in the Cycle of Mass Urbanization and Mass Production, the normal
generational progression was just as the one described in the paragraphs above. In each of
the three previous technological cycles in American history, there were three generations
who occupied adult roles in society during the entire period. All of these periods were
inaugurated by a mature adult generation who, as the Lost had, presided over the
expansionary phase of the new cycle; then at the beginning of the plateau phase of the
then current cycle, a younger adult generation would succeed to power, being itself
supplanted as young adults by a new generation.
So, for example, in the Cycle of Mass Urbanization and Mass Production, the Progressive
generation of Theodore Roosevelt occupied the position of mature adults during the
expansionary phase of the cycle with the Missionary generation of Franklin Roosevelt
filling the young adult role in society. Then during the plateau and declining phases of
that cycle, FDR's Missionaries become the mature adults, and the Losts moved into the
Missionaries old position. Thus in the Cycle of Mass Urbanization and Mass
Production, three generations, the Progressives, the Missionaries and the Losts occupied
adult roles during the period. This basic demographic configuration had also been true
during the Textile-Cotton Cycle, as well as during that of the Railroads.
Enter: The Boomers, as a Fourth Generation
In the 1960s the pattern described above changed. The Automotive-Petroleum Mass
Suburbanization Cycle alone experienced the rise of a fourth generation, a generation
unlike any other in this century -- the post World War Two Boomers. From the Progressives
of Theodore Roosevelt, through FDR's Missionaries, through Truman and Eisenhowers
Lost generation, and through the GIs and the Silents, every American generation of the
twentieth century had an urban identity. The Boomers did not.
From Urban to Suburban America
As they came of age in the middle and late 1960s, the suburban Boomers searched for an
identity to replace the urban and ethnic identities that were naturally given to the other
generations of this century. This search fundamentally altered America and created
divisions in this country that have plagued the nation ever since.
In many ways the rise of a fourth generation, during this the fourth and final cycle of the Industrial Age,
represented the most important triumph of that era. For the existence of a fourth adult
generation in a single technological cycle can be attributed to the increase in human
longevity produced by the rising standards of living of the Industrial Age.
GI & Silent Generational Partnership
The post war Boomers began to come of age just before the Automotive-PetroIeum Mass
Suburbanization Age entered its plateau phase. The rise of this new fourth generation
ultimately created a unique inter-generational bond between the GIs and the Silent
generations, in effect fusing the GIs and the Silents into an unprecedented generational
partnership. That generational partnership has governed America over the course of the
last two and half decades. From the onset, in 1974, of the Automotive- Petroleum Mass
Suburbanization Age's declining phase to today, America has been dominated by a
demographic configuration consisting of a GI and Silent generation coalition as the mature
adult leaders and a Boomer generation cohort group as the young adult segment of society.
But, remember, demographic configurations are not permanent. They must change, and when
they do, they change everything else.
Similarity of the 1990s and 1950s
There are certain basic differences that separate the mid 1990s from the late 1950s, but
there is one aspect of both eras that is nearly identical. As stated before, during the
Eisenhower years the national economy was constrained by the tight monetary and fiscal
policies adopted by the Losts Administration. These policies were driven by an
exaggerated fear of inflation on the part of the Lost generation, a generation who in the
late 1950s was facing retirement and feared that inflation would undermine the savings
that it had acquired under difficult conditions. The result of this fear was a period of
sub par job formation for the younger GIs and Silents.
Today, if we substitute the Silents for the Losts and the younger Boomers and
generation Xers for the younger GIs and Silents, we have an almost identical situation.
The ultimate reason for the similarity of these two periods is the similarity of their
Surviving the Silents
The median year of birth for a member of the Silent generation is around 1935. An
individual born in the year 1935 will be 65 years of age in the year 2000. The exaggerated
fear of inflation that prevails today is do to the fact that an older generation still in
power, but about to retire, is instinctively concerned that inflation will destroy the
value of the assets that they have accumulated for retirement. The monetary policies in
place today, just as those that were in force in the late 1950s, are the policies that
exist right before a major demographic shift takes place.
The type of tremendous demographic change that transformed this country in the 1960s is
about to occur again. This time, however, the change will take place not in the latter
stages of a technological cycle, but at the beginning of the Post Industrial Age, at the
end of a century and the beginning of a new millennium.
The Emerging Generational Configuration
The Silent generation is retiring; the Boomers will succeeded them as the mature adults in
society, and members of Generation X are going to replace the Boomer generation. All of
the political and economic tensions that America is struggling with today are a reflection
of this powerful pending demographic change. In the final analysis, not only the Silent
generation's ability to enjoy their retirement in financial security, but the general
welfare of the nation, will be determined not by how little inflation exists today, but by
how successful America is in entering the Post Industrial Age.
The ultimate key to successfully entering the new era will be the relationship forged
between the Boomers who are now on the verge of assuming the role of mature adults in
society and Generation Xers, the cohort group that is now taking over the Boomers
old role as young adults. mmm
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