About Our Method
Q. Is there really such a thing as a generation? Or, given that people are being born all the time, is it just an recent and arbitrary invention?
A. There is nothing either recent or arbitrary about generations. In cultures all over the world, archaic myths and epics originally relied on the generations—not years—as the standard unit for tracking the rise and fall of empires and religions. Some of the most renowned pioneers of the western study of history (such as Polybius or Ibn Khaldun) pondered obsessively over how generational changes regulates the ebb and flow of events. From Toynbee to Schlesinger, modern scholars who have discovered cycles in history have also pointed to generational succession as the underlying mainspring.
Q. How long is a generation?
A. The length of a generation roughly matches the span of time between birth and full adult status. In modern America, generation have ranged in length from 18 to 25 years. Generations born from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries were, on average, slightly longer.
Q. Why are generations so important in history?
A. It is important because the self-correcting dynamic of generational action and reaction is precisely what gives modern history its cyclical rhythm. The linkage between generations and history runs in both directions. It’s generational change, for example, that gives modern history is periodic alternation between eras of political upheaval and eras of values upheaval. And it’s the historical alternation between protective and permissive child nurture that plays a major role in shaping a new generation differently from the last. See Chapter 3 of The Fourth Turning, or Part 1 and Appendix A of Generations for the fuller answer this question deserves.
Q. Has anyone else ever described American history in terms of generations?
A. Several historians have alluded, in very brief compass, to the possibility of sequential birthyear generations—and their efforts to identify them generally matches our own. But no one else has offered names and birthyear boundaries across the full span of our history. In Generations, we took the succession of generations back to the first permanent European settlers on the North American continent. In The Fourth Turning, we go back six generations further, to the first “modern” Europeans in the latter half of the fifteenth century.
Q. Would you say that your theory is deterministic?
A. No. As we say in The Fourth Turning, the outcome is up to us—as a nation, as generations, and as individuals. In some respects, reenacting the legends of ancestors is liberating, because it gives purpose to acts that otherwise might seem pointless.
Q. What about technology? Hasn’t the Information Age propelled us into a whole new epoch that makes previous history less relevant?
A. It’s amazing to us how many Americans subscribe to technological determinism—the belief that technology is a sort of external godlike force that pushes society first this way and then that. In our opinion, technology (or, more precisely, the application of technology) faithfully mirrors the prevailing social mood; it does not determine the social mood. Technology simply gives us what we want when we want it. The recent high-tech surge has an interesting parallel in the early 20th-century rise of new communications and transportation technologies (autos, planes, and radios, to list just a few). Through the 1920s, they were considered to be forces pushing us toward individualism and social splintering. By the 1940s, though, they were tools of civic purpose and survival. We expect the Fourth Turning could have much the same impact on computers and other ‘90s-era technologies. Don’t think that Orwell’s Big Brother could never happen again: Computers could someday be force for dictatorial control, much as they now are for cultural anarchy.
Q. You describe Boomers as having been born between 1943 and 1960, and 13ers as being born between 1961 and 1981. Why do some others give different dates.
A. Many years ago, demographers got into the habit of applying the “Baby Boom” label to all Americans born between 1946 and 1964. They did so for only one reason: because these dates roughly bracket a 19-year period of unusually high birthrates. No one ever pretended that they had anything to do with location in history, with attitudes and behavior, or with self-identification—all elements that we think are necessary to define a birth-year generation as a socially vital concept. And, whatever its name, continuing to define “Generation X” as a “twentysomething” generation makes absolutely no sense at all. A generation is not an age bracket. If you’re interested in where, how, and why we draw these boundaries, see Generations.
Q. Why do you use “13er” and not “Xer” to describe today’s young adults?
A. We wrote Generations before Coupland’s book came out, so we had to apply a label where none previously existed. His tag caught on for a variety of reasons—none of them very positive for this generation. Even when the “X” label isn’t directly pejorative, it evokes a frenetic, mindless, selfish sort of stereotype from which many young adults would like to disengage. In 13th-Gen and The Fourth Turning, we stayed with 13—a number whose significance is drawn from history, not the pop culture. We doubt that the offspring of the ‘60s and ‘70s will always feel like “Xers,” but they’ll always be America’s 13th Generation.
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