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20 June 2024 • Reading time 8-10 minutes

The Silent Generation

With freshly bought apple pies and a can of whipped cream under our arms, we are on our way to the Zonnehof care facility in Tilburg. It’s time for a good conversation over a cup of coffee with the ‘silent generation.’

The silent generation was born between 1928 and 1945. Today, they are between 79 and 96 years old. They grew up during or just after the Second World War and experienced the complex reconstruction of the Netherlandsβ€”a period in which they dutifully did what was necessary. In order to build toward a brighter future, hard work was required. Many did not experience any form of luxury or wealth, yet there was no complaining. In contrast to the silent generation, the Baby Boomer generation is otherwise known as the protest generation. The contrast between these two generations’ peaceful and protesting natures led to the name ‘the silent generation.

Some characteristics of the silent generation:

πŸ™πŸ½ Known as a dutiful generation.

β›ͺ Grew up during a time of pillarization. The Second World War was the first time people from all groups had a shared vision thanks to a common enemy.

πŸ‘¨πŸΌβ€πŸ‘©πŸ»β€πŸ‘§πŸ»β€πŸ‘¦πŸΌ 45% of women had more than three children. Large families with up to 12 or 13 children were not uncommon.

❀️ Togetherness and collectivism were the norm. Individualism in the Netherlands only began to take shape in the 1960s.

πŸ§‘πŸΌβ€πŸŽ“ Additional education after primary school was a privilege. Children often had to start working after elementary school.

🚸 The relationship between child and parent or teacher was very different from now. Adults had more authority and regularly used corporal punishment.

We spoke with 7 men from the silent generation who meet weekly in ‘the men’s room’ for social contact and a drink. The men looked forward to our visit and happily shared their life stories and experiences with us. What stood out is that regardless of the topic we discussed, the men had a certain calm acceptance about them. Not because they are old but because of everything they have already experienced, making them less surprised by new developments.

We presented them with the statement, ‘Everything was better in the past.’ To our surprise, almost every man answered ‘no.’

“We were always alone at home. My father died in the war, and my mother had to go from farm to farm, asking the farmers if they had any food for us. My sister and I had to raise ourselves and make tough choices.”

-Geert (92), former construction engineer from Twente

A full plate of food was not a certainty for this generation, who also experienced the Hunger Winter (also known as the Dutch famine). In this period after the Second World War, at least 20,000 Dutch people (mainly in the Western Netherlands) died from cold and hunger. Most of the men we spoke to did not experience the Hunger Winter as badly because they came from more affluent families or lived in wealthier areas. The men unanimously agree that it is much easier to meet all your basic needs today. Even now that the men live comfortably and relatively luxuriously, they do not complain about their past.

Our following statement was, “Togetherness is very important to me.” Here, too, the men unanimously agreed. They pointed out that they don’t know any other way than doing everything together with family or friends. People stuck together in the family, the neighborhood, the church, or the local sports club.

“I come from a large family where the children helped raise each other. Still, something like privacy wasn’t necessarily a problem. We lived together in the space that was available, and it didn’t matter if someone walked in while you were showering. Now it’s different, and I must say I also value my own space more now.”

-Kees (89), a former tanner from Tilburg

In an increasingly individualizing Netherlands, having a room for each child in the house is a top priority. Yet, it is hard to say how that actually leads to a happier childhood. The silent generation, under the motto ‘we’ll share everything equally,’ doesn’t seem to have suffered from this.

Then, a topic I was very curious about was technology. We can safely say that the silent generation is not the most tech-savvy generation. But just think of all the technological developments they have witnessed.

πŸ–₯️ The first military and commercial computers

πŸ₯ž The first microwave

πŸ“½οΈ The first VCR

πŸ“» The first audio cassette

And, of course, all the technologies developed up to the present. AI developments are rapidly following one another, and we can marvel at what they can already do. But what if you’ve witnessed such revolutions many times before? Can you keep up with every development, and is it even worthwhile? With a few exceptions, the men agree with the statement, “I find it difficult to keep up with technological developments.”

“Technology is only important if you need it and can afford it.”

-Kees (89)

“New technology doesn’t interest me. If it’s really important for me to keep up with these developments, I’ll hear about it.”

-Henk (85), former inspector at Philips from Tilburg

Short and powerful statements that make you think. When is (consumer) technology really useful, important, or affordable? Innovations like the smartphone were supposed to save us time but have only cost us more time since the dawn of social media. Which truly necessary innovations has the consumer domain seen since mobile calling? Some may find it silly or annoying that older people don’t understand today’s technology. I envy them instead. No urge to buy the latest smartphone, no trouble with slow Wi-Fi, and much more selective information intake. Delightful.

For our second conversation, we sought the company of ladies from the silent generation to balance out the testosterone with some estrogen.

We were warmly welcomed with coffee and a slice of farmer’s cake in the picturesque Geldrop (just past Eindhoven). Our host was none other than Annie. In Annie’s living room, we were accompanied by her friends from the indoor bowls club (similar to bocce), where they meet weekly. In our conversation, we asked the ladies about their past experiences, but mostly about how they view the younger generations and what they think the future might look like.

Photo by Peter de Vlieger, for Huis van Houten

We talked with the ladies about the circumstances in which they grew up and the education they received in their youth. Most of the ladies indicated they went to housekeeping school (where men often went to trade school), and a few went to the mulo (more extensive lower education). Although many of them had other ambitions at the time, none of the ladies look back negatively on their time at housekeeping school.

“I had a great time at housekeeping school. I learned things there that are still useful today. I now happily make clothes for my grandchildren; they know they can always come to grandma for that.” – Tinie, 83

Younger generations looking to grandparents to repair clothes or patch a tire is likely a familiar phenomenon. The Great DIY Survey shows that 50% of young people under 30 seek help with DIY tasks. And about 75% regularly have to borrow DIY tools because they don’t have them at home. Conclusion: Young people are becoming less handy. This is a logical consequence of digitization and an economic shift from a manufacturing to a service economy. Still, it is good to ask ourselves if we are learning all the necessary things at school, given the significant shortage of technically trained individuals.

Then we cut the next cake and introduced the following topic: divorce. While the men patiently waited their turn, the ladies burst out their opinions. Both marriage and divorce turned out to be controversial topics. A woman had to marry back in the day. Otherwise, there was little chance of building a secure future. Women were expected to marry, and the church would ensure they stayed together.

“It was not accepted if you got divorced. Now, it happens too quickly; people divorce very quickly. Nowadays, people fall in love earlier through the work they do together. Social circles are different these days. We used to meet men at ballroom dancing events.” – Annie, 84

To add some nuance, it is good to mention that the ladies think it is a positive development that women are now more financially independent and therefore have choices. On a larger scale, they regret that love now sometimes seems too easily discarded. The promise of staying together ‘for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health’ only seems to apply to the happy times. According to research, interest in romance and relationships has decreased with each generation since the silent generation. That’s a shame, as many soft skills, such as collaboration and empathy, can be developed during a teenage relationship.

CBS (Statistics Netherlands) shows that this development is also happening in the Netherlands. According to the figures, people over 75 have had more sex since 2014, while young people between 16 and 25 have had less.

“What is still the same as it used to be is that you don’t quickly bring someone home. We didn’t bring someone home either, as it was immediately expected that you would marry him.” – Ennie, 81

Finally, we discussed spending money, a topic on which different generations have opposing views. Where today’s youth are driven by consumerism, older people feel good about living frugally and being mindful of their spending. All the ladies indicate that they often end up in discussions with both their children and grandchildren when it comes to money.

“My children and grandchildren always tell me: ‘Mom, just buy that new coat and treat yourself to something.’ They find it hard to accept that we are not used to those luxuries from the past, even though we now have the money for them. I’d rather give it to them so they can have a good life.” – Miep, 81

We learned during our conversation in the men’s room that money doesn’t necessarily make you happy. The ladies feel almost the same. Although they had less in the past, they do not see this period in their lives as less beautiful or enjoyable. According to them, younger generations should think more carefully about their monthly expenses. The ladies are not naΓ―ve because millennials and Gen Z are indeed known for spending a lot on eating out and drinks. This led to the creation of the satirical’ oat milk latte index.’ A coffee to-go nowadays quickly costs 5 euros. If you buy such a coffee every workday of the month, you’re looking at around 100 euros per month. The oat milk latte index shows how much you could have earned by investing this money. After 25 years of investing, you could make roughly 120,000 euros profit. Perhaps we should listen more to the frugal grandmothers.

To conclude our lovely conversations with the ladies and gentlemen of the silent generation, we’d like to share their advice:

  • Watch the pennies. You can’t predict the future. – Tinie, 83
  • Think about your money. Be a good person. Keep correcting yourself. – Ennie, 81
  • Live as you see fit. For everyone, that is something different. Supporting each other is very important. If you are there for others, you’ll see people doing the same for you. – Annie, 84
  • Keep seeking each other out and talking to each other. Physical contact is very important. If you have contact with each other, you understand each other better, and that’s how love for each other develops. – Kees, 89
  • Take advantage of the opportunities you get. – Henk, 85

So much for the (maybe not so) silent generation. In the next generation conversation, we will sit down with Gen X to see if they can find a gap in their busy family schedules and work agendas.


Author: Luuk Huijsmans