What is a Generation?

People are often talking about this or that generation (esp. “millennials” in the news these days). But what exactly is a generation? How long do they last?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary Online generation is one of the 1000 most frequently used words in the English language and means:

“1. All of the people born and living at about the same time, regarded collectively” and also, “1.1 The average period, generally considered to be about thirty years, in which children grow up,become adults, and have children of their own.”

So, according to the OED a generation lasts about 30 years. However, according to others, such as Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center, a generation lasts about 20 years.

The true difficulty is that there are different types of generations, particularly important, the biological and the societal. The biological lasts as the OED defines a generation from the birth of on group of children to the time when they begin, on the whole, to have their own children (about 20 to 30 years). The societal is defined as the following (Greg Laden’s Blog, on Science Blogs)

a cohort (a bunch of people born during a specified range of time) with a name that has some sort of meaning to those who use it. The following are widely recognized, given here with the midpoint of the generally accepted range of birth dates:

Lost 1914

Greatest 1923

Silent 1935

Baby Boom (Boomers) 1955

Generation X 1968

Generation Y 1975

Generation Z or I 1992

This is were the trouble gets in. The difference between a biological and societal generation. “Baby boomers” (a societal generation) are said to have been born any where between 1946 and 1964 (this time frame would allow then for some “baby boomers” to be the children of other “baby boomers,” certainly there are very few such cases but there are likely some.) Whereas, so called “millennials” are more of a biological generation (actually, the biological generation is Generation Y, “millennial” is a societal generation) lasing, roughly, from 1982 to 2004.