When does one generation end and another begin? Who gets to decide? As important as these questions are to the validity of the theory of generational cycles, the answers aren’t simple. The co-authors of Generations, the book that founded generational theory, William Strauss and Neil Howe, defined generations as:
The aggregate of all people born over about 21 years who share:
- A Common Location in History,
- A Common Set of Beliefs and Behaviors , and
- A Perception that they are Members of a Generation in Common with Others
Strauss and Howe chose twenty-one years as the approximate length of a generation because each of what they call the four “phases of life” lasts about that long:
- Youth, 0-21
- Rising Adulthood, 22-43
- Midlife 44-65
- Elderhood, 66-87
Because the role each twenty-one year long cohort plays in society when decisive or traumatic events occur varies, Strauss and Howe suggest the people in that cohort develop a unique “peer personality” or perspective on life that distinguishes one generation from another. For this same reason, they use memory of important historical events to date or distinguish one generation from another.
For instance, they give a full 24 years to the GI or “Greatest” Generation (born 1901-1925) because its members could all “recall at least some childhood during the Roaring Twenties,” while the Silent Generation that followed could not. Their most controversial generational dating is based on this reasoning as well. Unlike many who use rise and fall of birth rates to define the length of the Baby Boomer generation as beginning with those born in 1946 and ending in 1964, Strauss and Howe, use the memory of JFK’s assassination as the historical event that distinguishes Boomers, in their conception born between 1943 and 1960, and Gen-Xers, who they believe were born between 1961 and 1982. Others insist that those born between 1977 and 1982 are really Millennials and think that generation’s final birth year was closer to 2000 than 2003, but this reasoning would make Generation X’s length an historically unprecedented short seventeen years, even if you accept S&H’s beginning year of 1961.
What we can be sure of is that those born on the cusp of these generational shifts, usually within the five years of its beginning or end, are likely to have a mixture of attitudes and beliefs from both their so-called “peer generation” and the one that follows. There is for instance, an entire website devoted to the so-called “Jones Generation,” that the supporters of that site define as people who were born between 1961 and 1965 and therefore share none of the “60s” memory of Boomers, but are not behaviorally like their Gen X younger siblings. President Obama was born in this time frame, 1961, and his ability to see both the pluses and minuses of Boomer and Gen X attitudes is typical of “cuspers.” Similar understandings can be seen in the way those born on the cusp of the X and Millennial generations are able to work with both generations more easily than those born before 1977.
While generational theory is not astrology and doesn’t purport to define any single individual’s beliefs, the differing “peer personalities” of generations has been well documented in survey research. We believe that these differences are established in an individual’s “impressionable years,” between the ages of 17 and 25, when each person must evaluate what their parents taught them and the world as they are experiencing it and come to their own conclusions about how the world works. These ideas persist throughout a person’s life and change slowly if at all.
This makes both parental child-rearing practices and current events key determinants of not only what a generation believes but when it begins and ends as well. The writings of Dr. Spock, for instance, were the bible that parents of Boomers used to decide how to raise their kids, while the parents of Millennials were heavily influenced by the Bill Cosby Show and the quite different approach Cliff and Clair Huxtable used with their children. Once a new set of parents decide that they aren’t going to raise their kids the way they themselves were raised and try something different, a new generation begins. And of course, external events vary dramatically over time, adding to the dynamic of generational change and impacting the distinctive beliefs of a given age cohort.
Given the complexity of human behavior, the attitudes of one generation that distinguishes it from another, are best seen in the aggregate and with the passage of time. That makes defining the dates when generations begin and end more of an art than a science. But if you want to test how well your own behaviors match those most common among Millennials and see where you line up along the spectrum of generations living today, you might want to take this simple quiz from our friends at Pew. It might just let you overcome the tyranny of history in deciding your own generational membership.