As I get older and the people I help seem to get younger, it seems like more and more I field questions about people who were born in the mid-twentieth century (i.e. my contemporaries). I am still surprised when I ask someone about their grandparents to find out that I am older than the grandparents. It is a fact of genealogical life that unless a person was born before about 1930, it is difficult to find any documents about that person. The genealogical contradiction is that it becomes increasingly more difficult to find a contemporary person closer to the present, just as it becomes more difficult in the distant past.
It is not uncommon for people I meet to not know one or both of their parents. In a number of instances recently, the person knew a name and nothing else. The reasons for not knowing a parent are varied, but follow a common pattern. Sometimes the parent or grandparent is not just unknown, but actively persecuted by the remaining family members as in "we don't talk about him at all."
One issue in finding recent individuals is that more contemporary documents are usually protected by all sorts of privacy rules and laws. Some of which make sense and others of which are merely excuses to charge a fee to obtain the record. Another factor making investigation difficult is the fact that we live in a highly mobile society and it is not unusual for people to move long distances and lose all contact with their former residence. Another significant issue is whether or not the person wants to be found. It is not unusual for people to be in hiding for any number of reasons
Here is are a few suggestions concerning some common situations:
#1 Finding contemporary individuals who may still be living.
There are two possible extremes when looking for living individuals, those whose identity we know and those we don't. The first category is pretty simple and straightforward. The second is a problem. In the first category are those people with whom we have "just lost contact." They aren't hiding or avoiding us, we just don't know where they are. To help find people who aren't hiding, there are dozens of online resources for locating people both for free and for a fee. One example, the white pages from Dexknows. (if you look for your own name, you may get the idea that privacy is an illusion). The second category, people who do not want to be found, are slightly more problematical. The process of looking for these people is called a "skip trace." It is important to understand that depending on your time and resources, nearly everyone can be found.
#2 Finding people who only recently died.
In the U.S., the master source for recently deceased individuals is the Social Security Death Index. Most U.S. citizens are subject to Social Security and the death of anyone who dies who is covered by Social Security should be reported by the mortuary, a relative or other interested party. This works for nearly all deaths back to the early 1960s, before then, more people were not covered by Social Security and finding their death information can become very interesting and difficult. If you know where the person lived, you job is much easier, you can search obituaries and death notices in newspapers. Most obituary indexes go back only a few years, to about the 1970s, so you may need to search the newspaper.
#3 Finding people who are hiding.
I mentioned skip trace. Well, there is a whole industry built up to assist in finding people. Not usually for genealogy, more likely for debt collection. A Google search on "skip trace" brings up well over a million results. Let's just say that skip tracing is a very developed activity that produces results in almost all cases. It is very difficult to really disappear. Here is a pretty good description of the process.
#4 Finding people who are legally unknown.
Adoption is the main reason that for having people that are legally unknown. Originally, adoption was a public matter, but during the 20th Century, due to increased privacy concerns, adoption records were sealed and became very difficult to obtain. Just as with skip trace, a whole industry has arisen around the issue of finding one's birth parents. A Google search on "finding birth parents after adoption" shows 457,000 results. Before hiring anyone to search for birth parents, I would certainly take every precaution to investigate the individual or organization and obtain verifiable references. This is an area that is ripe with the possibility of scams.
#5 The person is really unknown.
The reasons people are unknown are a varied as the human experience. A baby may be born out of wedlock and the father unknown (or unrecorded). These situations are not limited to finding contemporary individuals, but are common throughout any given ancestry. Almost everyone will encounter the mystery father, the one who is not mentioned by anyone. In these cases, the real detective work begins. I am aware of a few success stories, but many times pertinent documents are simply unavailable. In this circumstance, as in most other end-of-line situations, the more information you gather about the individuals you can identify, the more likely you are to solve the mystery and identify the unknown person. In cases where there a lot of resources (read money) involved, a researcher may have to resort to DNA testing and other methods to give some leads into parentage.
#6 There is no information.
Absent the possibility that the unknown person was really an alien from outer space, there are a number of perfectly rationale reasons why a person cannot be identified. The major reason is name change. People do change their names for a variety of reasons, not all for criminal purposes. It is fairly common for immigrants to change their names upon entering a new country to appear more like one of the natives. This process never stopped, it is still going on everyday. It is not infrequent that I will be sitting in court listening to several name change cases before the court gets to my case. Formal name changes are as possible to discover as any other court records. But, when someone merely starts using a different name it is more difficult to detect. Again, this is a case where it is imperative to do the research for the individual in known, available records and not jump off into the unknown too quickly.
The general rule in all of these cases is to work from the known to the unknown. If you cannot find your grandfather, find out as much as you can about him personally before going off to search for his parents. In the course of learning about your father, you may find your grandfather.