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Depression, WWII, now Covid: The Silent Generation is getting the worst of history, again

The months of the pandemic have unified Americans in at least one way: Almost all of us have been having a hard time. What differentiates us are the reasons for the hardship and the ways we cope with it. And in part, the nature of our struggles and how we handle them are influenced by our generation. Our historical era and past experiences are the lens through which we see our current reality.

This robust generational character that makes them unlikely to complain or fuss is admirable, but it’s also a double-edged sword. It means many risk not getting the physical or social support they need.

A recent survey by NRC Health, formerly known as National Research Corporation, showed an increase in anxiety and depression across all generations since our global health crisis began, but they differ in degree: 56 percent of those in Generation Z report being “concerned or extremely concerned” with their own mental health, compared to 58 percent of millennials, 51 percent of Gen X and 33 percent of baby boomers. For the Silent Generation? The number fell to 23 percent.

It would be easy to look at these numbers and conclude that our older generation is doing just fine. And over the last few months, this is largely the narrative that has been created. A study conducted by Edward Jones and AgeWave, for example, found that 39 percent of the Silent Generation reported handling the pandemic “very well,” with only 5 percent reporting they are not handling it well at all. This is a significantly lower percentage than any other generation (for both Gen Z and millennials, for example, the number was 24 percent). Based on this, a PBS article quickly concluded, “Older people are managing the best out of everyone on the mental and emotional front.”

But let’s be careful not to interpret the quiet and lack of concern about their own personal struggles with anxiety, depression and isolation as a sign this generation doesn’t need our support. They have gone through life soldiering through what has been put in front of them without much complaint, and the stressors of the pandemic have been no exception.

The Silent Generation, born between roughly 1925 and 1945, now range in age from 75 to 95 years old. It is the generation that is most physically in danger from the current pandemic, but it is also the one with the most extended history of navigating adversity. Indeed, the tough path of their youth has been key in shaping the Silent Generation’s “peer personality” — the common attitudes and behaviors that emerge as useful for the challenges people face during a similar time in history.

Much of the Silent Generation was born just before or during the Great Depression. The cohort was comparatively small as a result, with fewer families wanting to take on the expense of children during an economically challenging time. Many in the generation were coming of age when the United States was actively involved in World War II and then faced the Korean War not even a decade later.

The Silent Generation went on to enjoy a smoother adulthood, exhaling as they were able to secure jobs in an economy that had just been rebuilt by their parents. But the fragility of the world after multiple wars and economic uncertainty contributed to their disinterest in rocking the boat or upsetting the status quo. Instead, they focused on putting their heads down and building secure lives for their families.

As the Time magazine article circa 1951 that first profiled the Silent Generation put it, it’s a population that has been “waiting for the hand of fate to fall on its shoulders, meanwhile working fairly hard and saying almost nothing,” while “taking its upsetting uncertainties with extraordinary calm.” They are a group who have known all kinds of sacrifice and “willingly submit to the cost, not from want of spirit, but from a knowledge that is the best thing to do.”

Now at a stage when they should be enjoying their well-deserved retirement, the unusually rough path of their youth has returned, bookending their lives with unexpected trials. As the most at-risk age group in a global pandemic, they have had to isolate themselves to avoid Covid-19 exposure, unable to enjoy things they have been waiting many years to do and preventing them from seeing those they love. But as we might expect from a group labeled the Silent Generation, they’re not complaining.

Yet we can still learn much from their example, if we listen carefully, about how to carry on and support one another. A nod to this recently went viral on social media, with memes proclaiming, “Your grandparents were called to war. You’re being called to sit on your couch. You can do this.”

And we can, aided by key lessons in resiliency from our oldest generation. As we cancel our in-person family gatherings, we are doing what is not easy but what is necessary. We are stepping up the way the Silent Generation has done their whole lives.

But this generation’s resilience — and the silence that characterizes it — does not mean it isn’t experiencing struggle. According to Dr. Kathleen Rogers of the Cleveland Clinic, “Many seniors already deal with isolation, and we’ve seen it worsen during the pandemic.” And the social distancing efforts to protect their physical well-being, while necessary, have created another real threat: significant risk to their emotional and mental well-being.

Of course, the reticence isn’t the only reason this cohort isn’t being as vocal about these circumstances. The older generation also grew up during a time when the stigma of discussing mental health was much greater. These days, younger people are more willing to talk about and seek treatment for mental health issues and see less stigma in it than older generations.

The NRC survey revealed this stark contrast: Only 17 percent of the Silent Generation would be likely or extremely likely to talk with a mental health professional about their struggles related to Covid-19, compared to 55 percent of Generation Z. The Silent Generation also reported being more concerned about their children than themselves, and undoubtedly do not want to be another source of worry.

We can still learn much from their example if we listen carefully — about how to carry on and support one another.

Make no mistake — the robust generational character that makes them unlikely to complain or fuss is admirable, but it’s also a double-edged sword. It means many risk not getting the physical or social support they need. After all, they have spent their lives taking care of us, not the other way around.

Whether or not they are willing to ask for it, our oldest generation must be able to lean on us. It is our time to be resilient and steadfast for them. In this season of gratitude, we can step up the way they always have. Whether it’s sending artwork from grandchildren, propping up a tablet or phone at their usual spot at the holiday table or sending handwritten letters from their kids, now is the time to find creative ways to bridge the distance — and the generation gap.

Megan Gerhardt

Megan Gerhardt, a proud member of Generation X, is a professor of leadership and management at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University and founder of Gentelligence, a movement to leverage generational diversity. She tweets @profgerhardt. 

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