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The value of the Silent Generation

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In this week’s social psychology blog, Sue Nieland writes about a category of voters who are usually disregarded in political polls, known as the Silent Generation. She reflects on the political failure to acknowledge their experience and viewpoint, and explains their special importance for her PhD research.

I voted to remain in the EU in 2016, and I am classed as an older citizen. I soon grew tired of the constant clustering together of anyone over 60 as ‘old and voted leave’ as I definitely am not, did not and neither did many of my contemporaries (vote leave, that is). 

Looking at this further when thinking about my  PhD in political psychology, I found that the use of categories to cluster people, whilst convenient, hides some deeper meanings in political decision-making, particularly for the older citizen. Many researchers are busily investigating reasons for the unforeseen outcome of the UK-EU referendum. I wanted to explore how experiences of Europe and our relationship with it influenced the vote. I decided it was particularly important to hear from the voters who have lived the longest and whose experiences include the Second World War and its aftermath. 

Polling data by YouGov, Ipso MORI and Survation clusters voters by age. Survation’s categories are typically 18-24, 25-34 up to 65-74 followed by a final category of 75+. Ipso MORI are similar, featuring 65+ as a final category, or occasionally 75+ depending on the data collection. YouGov use a final 65+ category for most of their survey research. There is therefore a general tendency to cluster everyone over 65 into a single category or occasionally to subdivide them at 75. The message from this is that once you are over 65 years old, you are part of a group spanning possibly 40 years. Your opinion and political choices are no longer important enough to disaggregate further. 

This leads to generalisations around citizen choices. The important one for my PhD is that ‘older people voted to leave the EU’. This, though, may not be an accurate conclusion. Evidence is emerging that whilst someolder people did vote to leave the EU (the so-called Boomers), those older still were more likely to vote to remain. My PhD will explore this in detail, and particularly around the experiences of a unique cohort of people, the Silent Generation, born between 1927 and 1946 – now aged between 73 and 92 years. Participants in this group may remember World War II and its aftermath. They will certainly recall the rise of the European Union and the first referendum in 1975.  Their political decision making will be influenced by experiences that other younger citizens nostalgically refer to (without actually having been there), such as the ‘Blitz spirit’ and war-winning achievements that are often cited as reasons why a hard Brexit will be survivable (even if we have to eat turnips for ten years). 

There are further categories that also diminish the older citizen. The ‘third age’ is used to refer to the active aging, such as those who are still in some way contributing to society or using their retirement productively to continue working, learning or travelling. But there is also the ‘fourth age’, described by Gilleard and Higgs (2010) as a ‘black hole’ into which people who are infirmed and dependent, and (supposedly) of limited societal value, are aggregated. The ‘black hole’ metaphor is well chosen – it can suck those from the third age into it if they are not aging in a way that keeps them away from its edges. 

The Silent Generation received their label  because they tend not to talk about their experience of the Second World War and what came afterwards. But there is an argument that they are silent for other reasons – that their value as citizens and their opinions are not recognised. However, they have a form of ‘situated value’. This was seen recently during the 75thanniversary of the D-Day landings on 6June 2019 when veterans were rolled out to reminisce about their experiences and revisit the horrors of that time, before being rolled back into silence. What was significant, though, about the events of 6 June 2019 is that the veterans were notsilent about the EU and our decision to leave. Some of them expressed regret at the decision to leave the EU in 2016 and the threat that brings to peace that has existed since then. As Will Hutton argued in the Observer just days after the event, there was a ‘disjunction’ between the values held dear by the veterans and Brexit. In his words, ‘it betrayed what they had fought for’ (Hutton, 2019). However, this message is now forgotten, for the value of the Silent Generation was only acknowledged around 6 June 2019 . Politically we have moved on. 

When building my PhD proposal, I believed that I could contribute to ‘giving a voice’ to the Silent Generation.  However, with the benefit of supervision and more reading, I realised that I want to explore this group of people from a dialogical approach, building on the work of Zittoun (2014) and others.  In my PhD, I intend to explore the voices of this generation and their political decision making. I will also investigate the role of nostalgia in politics. One important question will be whether political references to World War II do represent what the war meant to those who experienced it. 

 

References

Gilleard, C. and Higgs, P. (2010) Aging without agency: Theorizing the fourth age, Aging and Mental Health, 14:2, pp. 121 – 128

Hutton, W. (2019) ‘These old heroes evoked a glorious shared purpose. It’s now under threat’, The Observer, 9thJune, p. 45

Zittoun, T. (2014) Three dimensions of dialogical movement, New Ideas in Psychology, 22, 99 – 106. 

 

This week’s blog is the first in a new series from PhD students in the School of Psychology and Counselling. Sue Nieland is a member of the School’s staff who is studying for a PhD in social psychology. You can read more about the School and its staff here http://fass.open.ac.uk/psychology

 You can watch a short video about the Level 3 Social Psychology module DD317 here https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1258641

You might also be interested in the Open Learn short course DD317_1 Social psychology and politicshttp://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0


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