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Generations—Trying to Get Them Straight

February 8, 2017

For years now, I’ve heard generation labels tossed about electronically, on paper, and in conversations, but rarely does anyone try to define them. As a historian of ideas, finally I’d had enough of this murkiness, and decided to do some sleuthing myself.

One of the first things I discovered was that there is sometimes little consensus in terms of what to call a given generation, or even when a certain generation begins and when it ends. It’s sort of like epiphanies: rarely are you aware that you are experiencing one—only in retrospect can you look back at certain days and conclude: “You know, if that day had never been, how different my life would have been!” The same is true of generations: you can only define them in retrospect, when the dust settles and you can see the time period clearly.

My wife Connie and I discovered two sources: Philip Bump’s article, “Here Is When Each Generation Begins and Ends, According to Facts,” in the March 25, 2014 issue of The Atlantic; and “Why Advertisers Ignore You,” in the December 2016/January 2017 issue of AARP, the Magazine.

According to Philip Bump, the Census Department does not generally even attempt to label a time period. And it took a running battle between The New York Times and Slate to sort out the Millennials.

Let’s see what we’ve found out:


It was so labeled by Tom Brokaw, and the name stuck—but not how to define it. These are the people who fought and died in World War II. Bump postulates that the generation’s dates should be 1926-1946, ending when the war ended. AARP muddies the water considerably by splitting the period in two:

The Greatest Generation: 1907 – 1927
The Silent Generation: 1027 – 1946

I believe that here Bump has the edge in terms of consensus: the Greatest Generation time period ought to conclude with the end of World War II.


The Census Department does define this period date-wise: 1946-1964. It gets its name from the return to civilian life of millions of soldiers after the war’s end in 1945. The servicemen and servicewomen married, went to college on the G.I. Bill and had babies. My personal preference would have been to call this time period The Norman Rockwell Generation. Reason being, it was the last time period we’ve had that was mostly peaceful. It was also the last period characterized by a general acceptance of marriage, Judeo-Christian religion, and patriotism as the prevailing societal building blocks. Famed artist Norman Rockwell chronicled this peaceful time period in his 322 Saturday Evening Post covers (though Rockwell covers began earlier in the Twentieth Century, the real flowering impact-wise came in the 1950’s). Also, during this period, the U.S. was undeniably the strongest power in the world (morally, economically, politically, and militarily). It represents in history the high tide of Pax Americana—and its centerpiece was the Eisenhower administration.


This time period has never yet been clearly defined, but its time-frame is generally agreed upon as 1964-1983. I would submit that the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963, slammed the door on the Rockwell Era. All hell broke loose after that terrible date: the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the March to Montgomery, the Watts riots, the March on the Pentagon, Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, the Vietnam War, Ford surviving two assassination attempts—and family-wise,, divorce soaring 69% in but ten years, marriages now becoming an endangered species . . . lasting only 6.6 years. It also includes the Hippy Era, with its explosion of substance abuse and indiscriminate sex. It makes sense that no one has yet been able to successfully label this time period. Some try to insert a Generation Y into this time period, but really can’t seem to figure out how.


Generally, the time frame for this generation haws been pegged at 1984 – 2004. As time passes, this generation may be relabeled in terms of the rise of nano-technology, the social media, cyber warfare, etc. This time period also fascinates me because historians of ideas are well aware that all century-turning of the zeros are turbulent. During the last decade (fin-de-siecle) of each one, it seems as if all the mores by which that society lives by are thrown into the sky in one cosmic Hail Mary pass—and no one knows what will come down on the other side. 500-year-turns are even more seismic. And millennial turns even more so. The last thousand-year turn was followed by the Crusades and the so-called Dark Ages or Age of Faith. The last 500-year-turn was preceded by the Renaissance and followed by the Reformation.


No one knows yet what this 2005-2025 period will be called. But we do know that it began with an ideological shift left away from Christianity and, in 2016-2017, a wrenching polarizing shift back towards the right which is bound to result in turmoil. And America, in withdrawing its Pax America umbrella of stabilization from the rest of the world and retreating into a narcissistic It’s All About Me mindset—no one has any idea as to where all this will end up. No one yet knows where and when the dust will settle on the ideological Hail Mary Pass….but whatever happens, historians of ideas will have a field day trying to figure out its trajectory. Ominously, AARP editors tentatively label this Generation Z. So what will follow Z? Some are already calling this the Hook-up Generation because there appears to be no commitment tying in to the sexual act for millions of young people. Or the Suicide Generation—for suicides have reached epidemic levels. Or even the Opiod Generation or Social Media Generation.

2 thoughts on “Generations—Trying to Get Them Straight

  1. Proud of my grandkids — they are fine!

  2. Interesting. I do not take much stock in labeling these periods. I was the first of the baby boomers, but I guess I see myself moreof a Henry David Thoreau, however you classify him. I am an independent thinker who does not not have much regard for government. Do we even need it? Thoreau spent two years at Walden Pond, because he wanted to get away from government control, and unscrupulous politicians.

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