Generations In History Research Paper

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Generations—cohorts of humans born about the same time and growing up through the same slice of society and history—have played a more important role in the human past than is generally acknowledged. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, younger generations in particular played colorful, sometimes crucial roles in history. As awareness of generational differences and conflicts has grown, furthermore, an evolving theory of social generations has developed to explain the phenomenon. The writings of such thinkers as Karl Mannheim, Jose Ortega y Gasset, and a host of more recent scholars have analyzed the impact of changing sociocultural influences and traumatic historical events in forging social generations which may then themselves become powerful forces for change in history.

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1. Generations: The Term And The Concept

The term generation has been commonly used in a variety of senses, some of them marginal, others of central relevance to the generational historian’s task. This opening section will suggest six quite different uses of the term generation and of the more precisely focused concept of the social generation in history.

Genealogical accounts of the history of individual families commonly refer to each new wave of siblings as a new genealogical generation. Useful as it may be, however, this tight focus on an individual family evidently lacks the scope of developed generational studies, which typically seek to survey an age-defined subdivision of society as a whole.

Family history more broadly conceived may probe relations between biological generations—parents and children—across a whole society. Even this broader approach, however, still suggests that generational relations consist exclusively of relations between biological parents and children—another unnecessary limitation on the range of generational history.

Prosopography, offering a group portrait of coevals who occupy the same social niche as politicians, writers, or business leaders, for instance, does offer a form of generational history. Emphasizing similarities of backgrounds, beliefs, careers, and achievements as well as generational contemporaneity, such analyses clearly move beyond the family into the larger sphere of society as a whole.

Another form of generational analysis divides up historical time itself into generational periods of about 20 years, the time believed to elapse between the birth of one biological generation and the next. While this approach may uncover significant differences of generational perspective, it may also impose a series of generations of unconvincingly equal length upon the alternating longueurs and crisis periods of human history.

Perhaps the most useful form of generational analysis has been that which sees social or historical generations as birth cohorts, people born about the same time. This sort of generational analysis moves beyond the family and the single professional group and recognizes that different social generations may be of varying lengths and of greater or lesser significance, depending on social or historical circumstances. Above all, cohort analysis provides a solid foundation for generational studies in a given society at a specific moment in its history.

2. Age Groups In History

Age groups—groups of coevals—have been recognized in most societies and have been elaborately institutionalized in some. Like other subsets of society such as race, class, and gender, age groups have sometimes been both active forces in social conflict and creative agents of social change.

2.1 Age Groups In Human Societies

Anthropologists have detected age groups (age-grades or age-sets) among many pre-urban peoples. Progress from one age grade to the next may be celebrated by elaborate rites of passage, and membership in a particular age group often brings both duties and privileges. Young men will be expected to fight wars, young men and women may look forward to marriage, and older people of both sexes may serve as decision-making elders or perform important ceremonial functions.

But age groups are detectable in more complex urban societies also. Apprentices in guilds, students in schools, and even conscript armies may segregate many of the young from most of their elders. At the other end of life, retirement homes and communities separate older age groups from the rest of society.

In most pre-urban societies, younger and older people apparently tend to accept the same traditions and taboos. In more complex societies, however, conflict between age groups seems to have become considerably more common.

2.2 Conflict Between Age Groups

There is evidence of generational conflict in earlier urban societies than ours. Aristotle saw differences between youth and age at the heart of the social wars that frequently rent the fabric of Greek city-states. Medieval observers were dismayed by the riotous behavior of guild apprentices or the town and gown violence of university students. Many of the leaders of the European Reformation were young preachers, and historians have noted that the founding fathers of the USA were actually young men.

The clearest and most numerous examples of generational conflict, however, have been detected over the last two centuries. Nineteenth-century European commentators noticed the youth of the barricade building ideological revolutionaries who challenged authority in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. Twentieth century observers around the world recognized the youthfulness of the ideologically inspired guerrillas, urban-terrorist groups, and revolutionary cadres who played such a central role in the history of Russia, China, and the developing societies of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as in the most developed nations, in the 1900s.

3. The Generational Idea In History

Theoretical understanding of the generational idea has evolved in tandem with this apparently increasing historical significance of generational conflict. Earlier insights into the significance of generations in human society were brief and suggestive. The nineteenth and particularly the twentieth century, however, have seen much more elaborate and sophisticated development of the concept.

3.1 Early Awareness Of Generations In Society

Old Testament genealogies and Homeric poetry reveal clear concern with the succession of human generations. The traditional father of history, Herodotus, posited 33-year generations in his History of the Persian War, and the Arab world historian Ibn Khaldun proposed a basic theory of generations in his Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History.

Only in the nineteenth century, however, did social thinkers of the caliber of Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, and Wilhelm Dilthey begin to develop a coherent and convincing theory of social generations. Julian Marıas (1949), a leading historian of the generational idea, emphasizes their major contributions. Comte, he points out, clearly recognized the succession of generations as an important causal factor in social change. Mill was aware that the generational concept must be expanded beyond a familial or genealogical framework. Dilthey attempted to analyze the basic structure and significance of social generations.

3.2 Classic Formulations Of The Theory Of Social Generations

The first half of the twentieth century, particularly the period between the two world wars, saw classic formulations of the generational idea by the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset (1923, 1933) and the German sociologist Karl Mannheim (1928). Ortega’s account of the phenomenon focuses on the internal development of the typical social generation through four 15-year stages: childhood, youth, initiation to positions of power, and domination of society. This stages-of-life perspective has influenced many generationists since.

Mannheim’s analysis emphasizes the roots of generational differences in changing social and cultural circumstance. Arising in different social locations (e.g., middle or working class, rural or urban environment) and shaped by new trends in society at large, new social generations develop different points of view and patterns of behavior from those prevalent among their elders. Mannheim also analyzes the structure of the social generation, suggesting that a given birth cohort may be subdivided into a number of distinct generation units, subgroups who work up the common generational experience in very different, often ideologically definable ways.

3.3 Development And Validation Of The Generational Idea

In the wake of the global pandemic of youth revolt of the 1960s and earlier 1970s, finally, sociologists, political scientists, and other social scientists researched the realities and refined the theory of generational development and interaction as never before. Such theoretical and empirical students of the generational phenomenon as Vern L. Bengtson, Richard G. Braungart, T. Allen Lambert, Robert S. Laufer, and Marvin Rintala elaborated a convincing model of the social generation in history. These scholars probed the sociopsychological roots of generational consciousness in immense detail. They documented the persistence of generational identity long after the strong orientation toward one’s youthful peer group has faded. They collected masses of contemporary evidence of the existence of generational conflict and of its influence on social change.

4. The Theory Of Social Generations

As the twenty-first century begins, then, one form or another of generational analysis is used routinely, not only by historians, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, and critics of literature and the arts, but by journalists, politicians, marketing experts, and many others. These diverse commentators explore age groups just as they do groups defined by gender, class, or ethnicity. The brief exposition of a developed, essentially Mannheimian view of the sociohistorical generation that follows will try to build on this broad awareness.

4.1 Social Circumstances Shape Social Generations

A social generation, then, consists of a birth cohort, a group of individuals born in similar circumstances during the same span of years, and thus shaped by common social and cultural influences. The critical period in the shaping of a generation comes in its earlier years, when its members are most malleable and open to the influence of their sociocultural environment.

During the childhood of a birth cohort, common family structures, child-rearing methods, and educational practices begin this socialization process. Thus a patriarchal family structure, a child-rearing philosophy of spare the rod and spoil the child, and an education built around rote memorization may tend to produce one sort of younger generation. A more egalitarian family structure, permissive child-rearing methods, and schools committed to developing the individual propensities of each child may produce a very different social generation.

During the adolescence and youth of a birth cohort, the larger society in which it develops may also exert powerful developmental influences. Hierarchical or egalitarian relations in society as a whole, traditionalist or cosmopolitan cultures, authoritarian or democratic politics, all have an impact on young people just emerging into the world beyond the family. Within the society as a whole, furthermore, the particular generational location within which youth matures will also have its influence. Young people raised in working-class ghettos will grow up with a very different view of the world from that of their coevals raised in middleclass suburbs, even if both these locations are within the same larger society. At every level, the books young people read, the films they see, the songs they hear and sing, shape the beliefs and values of a social generation in ways we are only beginning to understand.

4.2 Historical Traumas Define Rebellious Generations

The socialization process thus shapes the members of each new generation from their earliest years well into their twenties. To these influences of home, school, and society at large, however, historical study of the generational phenomenon would add a special emphasis on the traumatic historical event in the shaping of a generation.

Popular accounts of specific social generations have tended to stress the impact of history on the young. Wars may have a much more profound impact on the lives and attitudes of the young men who fight them than on their elders. A major economic depression can be far more traumatic for young people discouraged by poverty from starting careers and families. Such historic events, furthermore, frequently challenge the view of the world the young have absorbed from other sources, producing confused, disillusioned, angry, or rebellious younger generations.

As Lewis Feuer pointed out, traumatic events may thus undermine the authority of both traditional institutions and of the older generation that imposes them (Feuer 1969). In this way the mores and morals of the young may change drastically as they shrug off the prescriptions of a de-authoritized older generation. Where anti-establishment ideas and attitudes are already present in the culture, such historic traumas may transform hitherto isolated advocates of change into leaders of large-scale generational revolts. Any historic dissonance between widely held social ideas and changing social realities may produce generational disillusionment. A traumatic historical event may multiply this effect, shaking the foundations of society and calling its deepest principles into question in the minds of the young.

4.3 Generations Shape The Course Of History

It is sometimes difficult to identify the historic victories or social transformations brought about by generational revolts. Youthful rebellions like the European political revolutions of 1848 or the very different American and Chinese cultural revolutions of the 1960s may fail to achieve many of their declared goals. Yet the new commitments and the youthful activism of social generations who march to a different drummer do often make a difference.

When young black Americans, for instance, took to the streets in the early 1960s, laws and attitudes changed. As a result, doors to social advancement opened, and the lives of at least middle-class black Americans were significantly altered. Similarly, the dominantly young people who rallied to the banners of leaders like Vaclav Havel in Eastern Europe in 1989 toppled political and economic institutions, radically transforming life in such nations as Poland, the Czech Republic, East Germany, and Hungary.

The openness of younger birth cohorts to new cultural influences may also have transforming social consequences. Around 2000, the spread of capitalism, computer technology, and even such specific ideas as freedom of thought and expression, or gender equality began to change the lifestyles of the young, and through them their societies, in many parts of the world.

5. Problems And Potential Of Generational Analysis

Major theoretical problems remain for the generational historian. There does, however, appear to be real potential for future development and application of the generational approach to history.

5.1 Problems Of Generational Theory

Like any broad attempt to explain society and history, the theory of social generations has generated its share of challenging questions.

How long is a generation, for instance? Thirty-three years as Herodotus declared, 15 years with Ortega, or even three years, as some modern demographic studies might suggest? Historically, the length of a significant social generation seems to depend on the pace of change. The more rapidly things change, the more quickly enough changes accumulate in the shaping social matrix to produce a significantly different generational point of view.

But how important are social generations? People unsympathetic to the approach often ask this question, frequently having a rival theoretical framework to suggest, such as social class. However, generational theory makes room for class differences in the concept of generational location, which Mannheim saw as an expanded form of class identity. There would in fact seem to be room for analyses of the same population in terms of its component races, classes, genders, or social generations—all important bases for analysis, none more fundamental than the others.

Finally, are social generations historical realities at all? Some observers have noted that even when the streets are full of young demonstrators, most young people seem to share their parents’ views. Certainly the socialization process does succeed more often than not, even in eras rent by generational discord. In history, however, numerical majorities are not necessary to produce significant consequences. When socialization fails with even a critical minority of the young, the resulting conflict of generations can produce historic changes in society.

5.2 Historical Research On Generational Themes

The uses to which generational analysis has been put during the twentieth century are manifold, and new topics well suited to interpretation in terms of generations emerge with every passing decade.

The generational approach has been widely utilized by historians and critics of art and literature. Students of such increasingly important features of modern history as immigration have also found generational analysis invaluable. And there is a vast literature on younger generations mobilized in student or youth movements, countercultures, or revolutionary cadres.

During the late twentieth century, the generational approach was also applied to changing attitudes and patterns of activity in many non-Western lands. India’s crisis of values has been explored in a number of such studies. Several Chinese student movements, as well as the massive Maoist Cultural Revolution, have been analyzed as revolts of younger generations. And more research is needed on the generational factor in the postwar colonial liberation movements and in the jolting changes that have accompanied urbanization, modernization, and globalization in the developing world since.

In developed societies with rapidly aging populations, finally, the other end of the spectrum of age groups would seem to demand historical study. With the progress of gerontology and our growing aware-ness of the persistence of generational memory as background, historians might profitably probe generational relations in past cultures in which older age groups have enjoyed both prestige and real power.

5.3 Related Concepts

Both the historic reality and the historiographical concept of the generation are ancient ones, yet we are often surprised when generational differences surface once again in history. Given the likelihood that such challenges will continue to occur, the theory of social generations would seem to merit both further development and more vigorous application to the study of society and history.


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