December 19, 2021
by Stephen Stofka
Over the next twenty-five years most of the Boomer generation, 1946-64, will pass into history, the last generation of the Age of Modernity that began four hundred years ago. Boomer children were taught by the Silent generation, 1928-45, that had endured the Depression of the inter-war period and World War 2. The Silents had emphasized a mechanical approach to learning, drilling Boomers in multiplication, diagramming sentences and the Pythagorean theorem. Boomers learned to salute the flag in recognition of the American values of democracy, freedom of speech, religion and markets. On the other side of the world were the Communists who were against these freedoms. The Boomers were taught that there were right and wrong answers, but the 1960s would challenge that Modernist mechanical view.
As the vanguard of the Boomer generation turned 65 in 2016, those of the Silent Generation voted for Donald Trump by a 19+ margin. He was the deal maker who offered a black and white version of a complicated world. Build a wall. Free markets. More oil, more coal. Make stuff again and Make America Great, a refrain from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election. Mr. Trump appealed to people who had learned to fit answers to questions like folding a carton or assembling a piece of furniture from Ikea. In a striking difference of opinion, only 50% of Boomers voted for Trump’s black and white vision.
This was the last election in which the Silent and Boomer generations had the dominant voice, falling to 44% of voters in the 2020 elections (Igielnik et al, 2021). More recent generations, the GenXers and Millennials were more tolerant of differing perspectives. In 1965, Congress revamped the restrictive immigration rules of the previous four decades to allow more immigrants from around the world. Educators taught the process of finding answers as well as the answers. Children learned that there might be more than one solution to a problem.
Although they grew up in an analog world, the GenXers and Xenials were the first generation to come of age in the digital world of the late 1980s and early 1990s (Wolfe, 2020). As earlier generations learned French or Spanish, some Millennial children learned a programming language so they could converse with a computer. A growing pluralism characterized this widening world and marked a transition from the modern to what is now called the post-modern. Later scholars may call this post-war period the beginning of the Age of Pluralism, marked by conflicting authorities, answers and solutions. Many people raised in a monoculture of similar assumptions are uncomfortable with more open perspective. Like all transitions, there is a political struggle to control the discourse.
We have put aside few of our past controversies. Despite a growing condemnation of slavery since the 19th century, the 2020 US Conference of Catholic Bishops estimated that there are still 40 million slaves in the world (2020, 4). Americans are still bound by a Constitution written in an age when people espoused equal rights in principle but believed in a natural supremacy of some races. Our laws and judicial precedents are imprinted with the beliefs and contradictions of that founding generation.
Shortly after the ratification of the Constitution, Jean Baptiste Lamarck (Famous Scientists, n.d.) formalized the evolutionary theory of acquired traits. A giraffe had a long neck because successive generations had stretched skyward to reach tree leaves and had passed this characteristic onto their offspring. For the same reason, some groups of people had evolved more even temperaments and better reasoning skills. To the founding generation, it was eminently reasonable that only men who owned property and demonstrated responsibility could vote.
In the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (2009) wrote “by nature the philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter as a mastiff is from a greyhound.” This observation recognized the commonality of our species as human beings but distinguished people by breed or race. When Smith refers to segments of the British population as a “race of laborers” he does not distinguish race by color as we do today but by capability. Like different breeds of dogs, some races were better suited for certain tasks.
Each generation leaves a legacy of their aspirations, their beliefs and fallacies codified into the institutions that govern successive generations. In the next decade, most of the Silent Generation will have passed into history but their thirst for clear and simple answers will persist in our politics. The Boomers sit on the fence between the mechanical viewpoint of the modern and the fluid perspective of the post-modern. Although their influence will decline at the polls, they will continue to control a lot of the country’s wealth so politicians will court their favor.
Igielnik, R., Keeter, S., & Hartig, H. (2021, September 30). Behind Biden’s 2020 victory. Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy. Retrieved December 18, 2021, from https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2021/06/30/behind-bidens-2020-victory/
Famous Scientists. (n.d.). Jean Baptiste Lamarck. Famous Scientists. Retrieved December 18, 2021, from https://www.famousscientists.org/jean-baptiste-lamarck/
Smith, A. (2009). Wealth of Nations. New York: Classic House Books. (Book 1, Chapter 2).
USCCB. (2020). Anti-trafficking toolkit 2020 – USCCB. U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Retrieved December 18, 2021, from https://www.usccb.org/about/anti-trafficking-program/upload/Anti-Trafficking-Toolkit-2020.pdf
Wolfe, H. (2020, July 22). Millennials, baby boomers, gen X and gen Z: The cutoff years for each generation. Considerable. Retrieved December 18, 2021, from https://www.considerable.com/life/people/generation-names/