The Atlantic recently posted an interesting article about the way in which the use of the word “generation” changed over time–a topic that should be particularly interesting to historians:
According to this article, until the mid-19th century, the word “generation” described biological relationships within a family (e.g., “three generations of Smiths were present at the reunion”). However, in 1863, Emile Littré, the French lexicographer, defined a generation as “all men living more or less in the same time.” This new definition represented the increasingly prevailing sense among Europeans that cohorts of young men were at odds with their fathers on a number of pressing social and political issues. It is no coincidence that Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, which dwelled on this topic, was written in 1862. Since then, we have used “generation” in this way–the Lost Generation, the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation X, the Millennial Generation, and Generation Z. Each is supposedly different from the one that preceded it.
But how useful is this type of generalization? To what degree do historians find this typology useful? To a certain extent, historians themselves are responsible for this way of looking at the past. As the article points out, in The Generation of 1914 (which One Thing after Another had to read in graduate school), Richard Wohl stressed the extent to which European intellectuals during the period around World War I saw themselves as divided in generations. Of course, Wohl is not the only one; numerous historians have employed this analytical approach. Detlev Peukert, for instance, availed himself of this tool in the beginning of The Weimar Republic (another book One Thing after Another had to read in graduate school) to explain the experiences that molded the politicians who were active in Germany during the 1920s.
As with anything else, of course, one can take the concept of generations too far. It fails distinguish enough within generations while at the same time exaggerating the differences between generations. All the while, decade after decade, we have been stuck using the same discourses, tropes, and traditions as we attempt to represent contrasts between generations. Take the following articles from Slate and The Wire:
In reporting the results of a Pew study, Slate points out that over half of the respondents saw their generation as unique. Slate observes that the economic circumstances that predominated in each generation’s young adulthood failed to make the list of what each generation thought made it special. Such an omission seems strange to Slate since studies appear to indicate that the economic situation in our young adulthood plays a large role in shaping our attitudes. This reference to the economy highlights a large problem with the idea of generations: it ignores the degree to which wealth and poverty–in short, class–influences the so-called common experience of any cohort. Of course, class is only one of many markers that distinguish members of a generation from one another. Race, religion, gender, and a host of other factors lead to important differences in the way different members of a generation perceive the world around them.
At the same time, The Wire points out that over the decades, those who self-consciously peddle the idea that there are generations (often the press) repeat the same tired and questionable observations about the younger generations then coming of age: the new generation is selfish, it is immature, it threatens of undermine civilization as we know it, and so on and so on. How can every new generation be like that? And if every new generation is indeed like that, what’s the difference between generations? The Wire, of course, has an answer, citing a 2010 article from Perspectives on Psychological Science to the effect that every generation in its twenties is narcissistic to the same extent. As every generation grows older, it loses that self-centeredness. Of course, if every generation is self-centered in its twenties and eventually grows up, such a fact would indicate that generations are not that different after all.
This is not to say, of course, that generations do not matter. They do. But belonging to a generation is only one element of somebody’s identity. The great events that ostensibly shape a generation mark different members in different ways depending on their situation. The lesson to be learned here is, as Slate puts it, “Generations are mushy sociological constructs that lend themselves to gross generalizations about massive, diverse groups of human beings.”