As we wind down from our Independence Day celebrations this year, let us take a moment to think about the people who are part of the so-called “Silent Generation”; those said to have been born between 1925 and 1945. These are people who grew up in the shadow of the Great Depression and a Great War (two enormous social traumas), but who reached maturity during the Golden Age of Capitalism, between 1945 and 1970.
This is a major reason why many Americans have the notion of the “good old days”; because for our aging loved ones, the times when they were coming of age really were that good. The postwar boom saw 15% of the world’s total wealth transfer from Europe, Russia, and Japan to the United States. That would be the equivalent of the rest of the world giving the U.S. more than $1 trillion in today’s dollars.
It is no wonder, with the awe-inspiring wartime victory followed by the huge post-war boom, that our honored elders tend to believe firmly in American exceptionalism, and they also believe that much of that exceptionalism has been lost during the past few decades. America really was exceptional when they were just cresting the wave of adulthood, and it really has become noticeably less exceptional since then.
But just how much more patriotic is the Silent Generation compared to the generations who came after them?
Measuring Patriotism Quantitatively
According to the American National Election Study, a government-funded project that has been collecting data on American patriotism since 1948, patriotism is not something that typically changes as a person grows older. It tends to be set by our experiences as children, and remains with us for life.
Here are a couple of sample questions that clearly show the differences in generational attitudes:
- When asked “How important to your identity is your American nationality?”:
- 78% of the Silent Generation replied “Very important,” as did…
- 70% of Baby Boomers
- 60% of Generation X
- 45% of Millennials
- When asked “How proud are you to be American?”:
- 86% of the Silent Generation replied “Very proud,” as did…
- 68% of Baby Boomers
- 67% of Generation X
- 56% of Millennials
- When asked “Does the phrase ‘a patriotic person’ describe you accurately?”:
- 81% of the Silent Generation replied “Yes,” as did…
- 75% of Baby Boomers
- 64% of Generation X
- 49% of Millennials
It is worth noting that the differences in patriotism between racial groups, genders, socioeconomic classes, and even political parties are minimal compared to the differences between generations. In other words, nothing seems to have a greater impact on your “base patriotism” than the generation you grew up in.
Measuring Patriotism Qualitatively
Of course, what people mean by “patriotism” has changed significantly over the past 70 years or so as well. The Millennial generation embraces what experts call “critical patriotism,” as embodied by the phrase “loving your country means noticing its flaws and working to correct them.” By contrast, the Silent Generation tends to believe strongly that “it is un-American to criticize America.”
The slide from one stance to the other follows a similar pattern to those seen in the quantitative questions above. Baby Boomers tend to lean more toward the “love it or leave it” sentiment, while Gen Xers tend to lean slightly more toward “I like American ideals, but our policies could be improved.”
Similarly, the triggers that bring up feelings of patriotism also tend to change over time:
- The Silent Generation feels most patriotic when interacting with a physical symbol of their country; e.g., the Stars and Stripes, a bald eagle, an image of the Lincoln Memorial, etc.
- Boomers and Gen-Xers feel most patriotic when participating. This may be with symbolic acts such as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, or with actual participation in patriotic service groups such as the Boy Scouts.
- Millennials feel most patriotic when they see what they consider American ideals, such as equality, opportunity, and freedom, being implemented in a way they can identify with. They have little time for symbolism that, in their minds, offers them no substance.
Why Is this a Subject Worth Discussing?
Politics is a subject that has always been divisive. However, during the past few years, that divisiveness has risen so sharply that experts are beginning to recognize an affliction they have tentatively labeled “Post-Election Stress Disorder.”
The American Psychological Association reports that 57% of Americans consider the current political climate “stressful or extremely stressful.” In addition, the overall stress level of Americans spiked about 10% between August 2016 and January 2017, the biggest single jump since the APA began its study on Stress in America ten years ago.
Because our aging loved ones have a strong tendency to view patriotism as symbolic and un- or even anti-critical in nature, it is very easy for them to remain steadfastly patriotic and pro-American even as the younger generations experience higher levels of tension and stress. It is up to us as their caretakers not inflict our political stress on them. It is up to us to understand that their worldview was formed through vastly different experiences than ours, and to give them space to be patriots in the way they always have been; above the fray, exceptional and proud of it.