In its most widely accepted modern sense, a generation is comprised of a group of people born around the same time and sharing certain formative experiences. The concept of generations has been used by social scientists, historians, and anthropologists to explain social change over time and to identify differences within social groups. The term has also been applied loosely to describe literary groups and genres, such as the metaphorical designation of "lost generation" applied by Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) to certain post–World War I writers and artists or the "lost generation" of British writers who literally disappeared in the trenches of the Western Front, or the Beat Generation of 1950s America. In the second half of the twentieth century, it was also deployed by advertisers and other producers of mass media–based popular culture (for example, Generation X) and entered into common usage as a way to identify and distinguish oneself or a particular group.
Early references to the significance of generations may be found in Western and non-Western classical texts and in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Such references were mainly genealogical in nature yet also considered generations as a concept to chart change over time. Both Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 B.C.E.) and Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) recognized the significance of generational conflict as a motor of political change, with the former advocating that citizens older than ten years of age be expelled from the republic in order to facilitate the construction of the model society. Homer, in the Iliad, wrote that "as the leaves of the trees are born and perish, thus pass the ages of man." Herodotus (484–between 430 and 420 B.C.E.) used a scale of "a hundred years for each three generations" in recounting the succession of Egyptian kings and high priests, thus providing one of the earliest references to the common characterization of one generation spanning thirty years. The fourteenth-century Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) also reflected extensively on the nature of familial, tribal, and dynastic ties and succession.
But it was not until the nineteenth century that European scholars attempted systematically to define the term and apply it to the study of human society. The first such important attempt was made by Auguste Comte (1798–1857). In Cours de philosophie positive (1830–1842; The course of positive philosophy), Comte proposed that social change is determined by generational change and in particular conflict between successive generations. As the members of a given generation age, their "instinct of social conservation" becomes stronger, which inevitably and necessarily brings them into conflict with the "normal attribute of youth"—innovation. Following Comte closely was John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), who argued that generational change and the process of a new "set" of people taking "possession of society" marked off one historical "age" from another. Around this time the German literary scholar Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) suggested that the leading lights of German Romanticism, who were born at around the same time and shaped decisively in their young years by their social and intellectual milieu, represented a distinct and influential generation.
Most influential, however, was Karl Mannheim (1893–1947), who argued that two approaches to the study of generations had heretofore been dominant, neither of them satisfactory. The "positivist" approach of Comte emphasized social change measured exclusively in fifteen-to-thirty-year life spans, which in Mannheim's view reduced history to "a chronological table." Conversely, the "Romantic-historical" school, represented by figures such as Dilthey, Wilhelm Pinder, and Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), emphasized the qualitative experience of the individual but downplayed or ignored the importance of social context (though Dilthey was not oblivious to this). Mannheim did not deny that the biological life-death cycle produces "generations" but added that those born around the same time "share a common location in the historical dimension of the social process" and are thus formed by social experience, especially at a relatively young age. Change takes place as members of younger generations come into contact with members of older generations. Crucial for Mannheim was the rapidity in which the social context was changing, as not every generation comes to define itself as distinct. Hence periods of accelerated social change tended to produce more cohesive and distinctive generations. Yet Mannheim also noted that each generation can contain "a number of differentiated, antagonistic generation-units." He also called attention to the intersection of generation and class, though he did not attempt a theoretical reconciliation.
Another effort to theorize about generation was made by Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955), who proposed that what constitutes a "generation" is not a select or large group of individuals but a "particular type of sensibility, an organic capacity for certain deeply rooted directions of thought" that places each generation on a "vital trajectory"; within the life span of each individual lies the basis for generational conflict and hence historical change. For Ortega, the years between one and fifteen are not marked by any political participation, whereas the following fifteen years are spent learning but also in passivity. From thirty to forty-five, the individual enters into conflict with the preceding generation—that is, those between forty-five and sixty and the possessors of power. In the final stage—sixty to seventy-five—the individual is a "survivor" who remains "outside of life" and a mere "witness." Gasset's ill-defined notions of "sensibility" and "vital trajectory" never attracted sustained critical attention from future scholars.
In 1949, one of Ortega's students, Julian Marias, summarized the various theories of generations, suggested new avenues of inquiry, and pointed out some of the shortcomings of the various conceptualizations. Marias argued that "generations" do not in fact exist but are purely social constructions, that the series of fifteen-year benchmarks proposed by Ortega and others is similarly arbitrary, that scholars had ignored women and were generally unclear on who gets included in a particular generation, and that theorizing on generations had not accounted for the rebel individual or "elite minorities" within generational groups. Marias himself did not advance a theory of generations of lasting influence, but his critique of previous characterizations pointed the way to more sophisticated interpretations.
In the postwar era, political scientists and sociologists, mainly in the United States and Germany, have produced the most extensive empirically based studies of generations. Political scientists have attempted to identify "political generations" as birth cohorts who share formative experiences and then go on to mobilize themselves for some kind of political action. The upheavals of the 1960s sparked considerable interest in the systematic study of generations in the United States, in large part because of the large role young people played in the civil rights, free speech, antiwar, and other protest and countercultural movements. While some scholars and much popular literature identified a "generational revolt" at the heart of the student protest movements, much evidence suggested that the rebellions, at least in the United States, were a response to the process of being socialized in a system that proclaimed liberal democratic values but did not live up to them in practice. Thus much of the student revolt was a confrontation with hypocrisy rather than parental values. The revolt produced a search for political and cultural models that could reconcile the perceived gulf in rhetoric and reality. Many young people become enamored of Third World revolutionaries, pioneered women's and gay liberation politics, focused on the environment, or experimented with countercultural lifestyles revolving around communal living, music, and experimentation with drugs.
Political scientists have also examined generational differences and political party loyalty in the United States. An influential study published in 1960, The American Voter, argued that younger American citizens were not as loyal to political parties as were their older compatriots. Further research confirmed that the high degree of party loyalty that had previously characterized American politics declined, at least among white voters, from 1952 to 1984. Some scholars argued for a "life-cycle thesis" while others pointed to the presence of distinct political generations in the postwar United States, thus suggesting that particular historical events account for the decline in partisanship.
Post-1980 scholarship on political generations has considered developments in the non-Western world. Ruth Cherrington's research on young intellectuals (the "reform generation") in 1980s China employed Mannheim's theoretical conceptualization to demonstrate that well-educated young people became disillusioned with the lack of political and economic change following the Cultural Revolution, the death of Mao Zedong and Chou Enlai, and certain educational and economic reforms that promised young people better lives and the possibilities of changing Chinese society. In the mid-1980s, this "reform generation" seems to have developed a distinct generational consciousness fueled by rising expectations, a sense of superiority vis-à-vis older generations, and a greater awareness of technological change and the world outside China. Largely though not exclusively as a result of this generational shift, a student movement and a prodemocracy movement emerged, culminating in the events of June 1989.
Historians have also studied generations with illuminating results, with the upheavals of the American and French revolutions, the failed revolutions of 1848, the American Civil War and reconstruction, the unifications of Germany and Italy, the defeat of Spain by the United States in 1898, and above all World War I and its aftermath providing particularly fertile fields of study. Robert Wohl examined how members of the "generation of 1914"—a select cohort of educated young British, French, Italian, Spanish, and German men who fought in the Great War or at least were altered irrevocably by its traumas—thought of themselves as representing a new generation freed from the stultifying past of bourgeois complacency and charged with the rejuvenation of their societies. Wohl sees this rejection of the past and desire to revitalize the society of the present as fueling many members of this self-proclaimed generation's enthusiasm for fascism. In modern Arab and Israeli political culture and thought there are several key historical concepts related to generations and associated with decisive defeats or victories: Jil al-Nakba (Generation of the Catastrophe), namely the generation that experienced the defeat of 1948; and Jil al-Naqsa (Generation of the Setback), the generation that experienced the defeat of 1967. In Israeli culture the term "dor tashach" (the generation of 1948) refers to the men and women who fought for and created the modern Jewish state.
The German historian Michael Wildt examined the generation of young men who formed the leadership cohort of the Nazi Reich Main Security Service of the SS (the Schutzstaffel) and became responsible for directing the early stages of the systematic assault on Europe's Jewish populations. Of the 221 individuals studied by Wildt, three quarters were born in and after 1900 and thus were too young to have fought in World War I yet old enough to have been shaped by the traumas of the postwar years and the accelerating radicalization of German political culture. Wildt noted that the Reich Main Security Office drew more than three quarters of its members from this Kriegsjugendgeneration. Well educated and in the prime of their lives when Hitler came to power in 1933, they were ideal matches for an institutional culture of the regime's ideological police, a culture that promoted both unwavering ideological fervor (further radicalized by war) and obedience along with modern rational bureaucratic organizational skills.
The generations theme has also been important for historians of modern immigration. Particularly influential was Marcus Lee Hansen's thesis that the second generation of the children of immigrants tends to strive for complete assimilation and shows little interest in parents' home cultures while the third generation becomes remarkably interested in "returning" to grandparents' cultural roots. Hansen's thesis was a broad generalization based largely on personal experience rather than empirical research, yet it influenced successive scholars of the immigrant experience, such as Nathan Glazer, Oscar Handlin, and many others. By the 1980s, however, scholars had demonstrated via local studies of ethnic and religious groups the weakness of Hansen's thesis. More recently, scholars of immigration have begun to consider "generations" as social constructions used, for instance, by immigrant-descended writers exploring the tensions between assimilation and identity. The concept of "generations," therefore, is not a satisfactory explanatory tool but merits study as a cultural construction.
Anthropologists have focused on generations principally in terms of genealogy, the structures of kinship, and aging. Yet they have also relied on the modern social-scientific conceptualization of a generation as a cohort of people who identify with each other based on common experiences. Cultural anthropology, however, has turned away from generalizations based on culture and has considered the importance of difference, local context, and structures of power and how these things influence conceptions of age, kinship, and gender. Cultural anthropologists have also recently addressed the kinship ties in gay and lesbian families. Some scholars have argued that gay and lesbian families are distinct from dominant conceptions of the "American family" in that they do not place a high value on biological ties in defining kinship. Others have argued that "motherhood" is central to womanhood in American culture, thus overriding any distinct "lesbian" identities.
That the conceptualization of a birth cohort shaped by social forces has become the standard approach to defining and analyzing a generation or generations is illustrated by recent popular and scholarly work on the "hip-hop generation." Journalists and scholars have sought to move beyond the pop culture industry to explore the relationship between hip-hop, black youth culture, and the persistence of political and economic inequality in the United States. Bakari Kitwana has employed Mannheim's basic framework in analyzing the cohort of black Americans born between 1965 and 1984 and has argued that hip-hop largely defines this cohort, the first to come of age in postsegregation America. Hip-hop culture has evolved beyond its original four core elements—graffiti, break dancing, DJing, and rap music—to encompass language, dress, attitude, and political and social activism that both draw and distinguish it from the experiences and values of the preceding generation.
Kitwana suggests that six factors have shaped this generation's worldview. One is rap music, which has given black youth culture unprecedented international visibility while providing the "medium" by which a common culture could be constructed. A second is the accelerated development of global capitalism in the 1980s and 1990s, which has led to increased income disparities that have hit black Americans disproportionately hard. Third is the persistence of segregation and inequality in wages and salaries, housing, electoral politics, and other segments of society. A fourth factor is widespread mistrust of and cynicism about the criminal justice system. A fifth involves the ways in which young blacks are portrayed in the mainstream media, particularly in reporting on crime. Finally, there is the reality of relatively high unemployment rates and rates of incarceration, gang activity, gun homicide, suicide, and AIDS. Kitwana suggests that the implications of these factors remain little studied or understood by scholars, journalists, or policy-makers. Further, he argues that an enormous divide exists between the hiphop generation and the preceding generation, which was influenced decisively by the black Church and the civil rights and Black Power movements.
While "generation" as conceptualized by Mannheim continues to draw some interest from scholars and has become pervasive and scholarly popular points of reference, the main problem with the study of generations has been that the collective identity of any birth cohort is crosscut and shaped by multiple factors, thus greatly complicating empirical research and generalization. Sustained interest in some of these factors—above all class, race, ethnicity, gender, and the body—among social scientists, historians, literary scholars, and cultural anthropologists has not encouraged substantial new theoretical or empirical work on generations. Further, in the last decades of the twentieth century the influence of postmodern cultural theory, which challenged the validity of sweeping explanatory models or "metanarratives" that claim to explain social change—such as "generations"—contributed to the decline in scholarly work on the subject.
Steven P. Remy