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Question:

Generetion, as a time period, is a widespread concept (or perhaps an idea) in History, in Social Sciences, and also in common language. Do historians have some sort of consensus on the time span of a generation? Why?

I would appreciate if you could provide some reliable sources for your answer (more reliable than the ones I present below).

Some previous search results:

  1. When searching for "generation" on Stack Exchange History, 695 results are returned. However, there is no single definition of the concept that I could find.

  2. Wikipedia has a page for the "social concept" of generation. It says:

A generation is "all of the people born and living at about the same time, regarded collectively." It can also be described as, "the average period, generally considered to be about 20–⁠30 years, during which children are born and grow up, become adults, and begin to have children." [...]

Generation is also often used synonymously with cohort in social science; under this formulation it means "people within a delineated population who experience the same significant events within a given period of time". Generations in this sense of birth cohort, also known as "social generations", are widely used in popular culture, and have been the basis for sociological analysis. Serious analysis of generations began in the nineteenth century, emerging from an increasing awareness of the possibility of permanent social change and the idea of youthful rebellion against the established social order. Some analysts believe that a generation is one of the fundamental social categories in a society, while others view its importance as being overshadowed by other factors including class, gender, race, and education, among others.

  1. This other question of Stack Exchange History also uses the idea of a generation spanning a period of 25 years (implicitly, in the title) or a period between 20 and 30 years (explicitly, in the body of the question).

Update:

Additional sources of information:

I did some additional research and found out some controversy with the idea that generations usually lasts between 20-30 years, with 25 years as a good average approximation, as stated (in the aforementioned links) by Wikipedia, by another Stack Exchange History question, as well as in most of the comments to my question.

  1. First, this article by Pew Research Center considers:

A generation typically refers to groups of people born over a 15-20 year span, such as the Millennial generation, currently the youngest adult generation.

  1. Second, this paper entitled Generation, life course and news media use in Sweden 1986–2011 says:

As a point of departure, the generation analyses use the widely recognized classification of the dutifuls (1926–1945), the baby boomers (1946–1964), generation X (1965–1976) and the dotnets (1977–1995).

That is, it takes four "widely recognized classification" of generations and they range between 12 years (generation X) and 20 years (dutifuls).

  1. This other paper named Generation Alpha: Marketing or Science? says:

According to the model made by Strauss and Howe (1991), a generation change takes place in our society around every 20 years, with some signs of cyclicality.

They are referring, in the above sentence, to this book, which I do not have access to verify the quote.

The main goal of this third additional source is to criticize, as unscientific, the approach of a social researcher, Mark McCrindle, who published a book, entitled: "The of XYZ: Understanding the Global Generations". According with Google Scholar this book has over 550 citations. I also do not have access to this book, but this site writes about it:

Australian social researcher Mark McCrindle recently coined the term Generation Alpha to describe the generation born between 2010 and 2020.

He argues that as the world advances, it makes sense to cut the generational boundary to a 15-year maximum. McCrindle also hopes this naming strategy will stick and every 15 years there will be a new generation named successively with Greek alphabet letters.

  1. Finally, the third paper mentioned above also makes an interesting introductory statement based on the work of the Sociologist Karl Mannheim:

According to Mannheim, an age group can be considered a generation if they share some immanent attributes, generational consciousness or communal characteristics. For this to happen, three requirements must be met: shared experiences, actual cohesion, common attitudes, and forms of behavior (Mannheim, 1969).

This last statement is also coherent with the concept of generation mentioned in Wikipedia as being used in social sciences. However, apparently, there is an unnoticed growing gap between the biological concept of generation described as, "the average period, generally considered to be about 20–⁠30 years, during which children are born and grow up, become adults, and begin to have children" and the sociological concept of "an age group that share some immanent attributes, generational consciousness or communal characteristics".

The quote of Wikipedia on biological generation length is based on an OECD document which was "retrieved in 2011", but has a broken link. A search for the original document, leaded me to this updated publication of 2019 showing that: "In most OECD countries, the average age at which women give birth now stands at 30 or above".

That is, while biological generation time span has widened to above 30 years, the sociological generations time span apparently has shrunk to under 20 years. This probably has important consequences to social, and therefore, historical dynamics.

If this hypothesis holds, then the average social distance between parents and children (that is, individuals that are one biological generation apart) may be about two social generations. That means the distance on "actual cohesion, common attitudes, and forms of behavior" between parents and their children might be equivalent today as it was between grandparents and grandchildren in the past, potentially leading to new forms of intergenerational conflicts and social polarization.

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    Hi LuizZ and welcome to History SE. I'm not quite sure what we can add to your research given that the Wikipedia article you cited is generally well-sourced (and the sources used are mostly academic + international organizations such as the OECD). Nov 17, 2020 at 1:31
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    Hi Lars, thank you for your comment. Indeed, Wikipedia article quotes academic and international organizations sources. However, the claim that "the average period, generally considered to be about 20–⁠30 years", despite being in quotes, does not refer to any publication. Also the OECD table they quote has a broken link, and when we google for the same data, we find a more recent OECD publication, which says that the average age of first-time mothers is now over 30 in OECD countries and does not mention the term "generation".
    – LuizZ
    Nov 17, 2020 at 3:01
  • Anyway, I do not expect that anyone here will do a new research for me, but I thought that maybe a community member might had already have some expertise on the topic and know good sources to quote
    – LuizZ
    Nov 17, 2020 at 3:04
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    "Generation" is usually taken to mean 25 years, but I don't think it's a strict defined term of art that you can expect precise answers for. At least in history it seems to be mostly just a descriptor for a rough time scale.
    – Semaphore
    Nov 17, 2020 at 7:02
  • Thank you for your comment. These evaluation from people that are knowlegable in History already provide some evidence of what you said: generation, in history, "seems to be mostly a descriptor for a rough time scale". I would be satisfied to have as an answer just like yours if it was based on an academic quotable source. Preferably if also had some quantitative evalution like yours "Generation is usually taken to mean 25 years".
    – LuizZ
    Nov 17, 2020 at 10:13

3 Answers 3

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One could say that a generation-span is the same as the average age of motherhood. A good information source would be census returns, when analysed statistically. One could also use female fertility data by age, if that were available, from which the average age of motherhood can be found. There will be a mean age and a spread (usually defined by the standard deviation). Today, in the UK, this is about 30 +/-8 years. In ancient times the average age of motherhood could have been 26 +/-6 years. From a statistical point of view these numbers can be said to be the same, since the estimates overlap.

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  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
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    Nov 12, 2023 at 20:26
  • One should remember to add 40 weeks onto that estimate; though that may be over precise for the accuracy available. Nov 12, 2023 at 21:07
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I've already commented to say that it should suffice to say how you've defined the value, and if anyone disagrees with it they have a starting point on which base that claim. However, I also have a potential academic source where 25 years has been used in the past.

Sir John Glubb, in 'The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival', explored the rise and fall of states. He managed to approximate the period in which this process happens to a matter of ten generations or 250 years:

One of the very few units of measurement which have not seriously changed since the Assyrians is the human ‘generation’, a period of about twenty-five years. Thus a period of 250 years would represent about ten generations of people. A closer examination of the characteristics of the rise and fall of great nations may emphasise the possible significance of the sequence of generations. ...

This would allow you to at least source the use of 25 years back to someone else if you so desired.

Sir John goes on to describe how in these "sequence of generations" an empire expands, conquers, trades, enriches itself, learns, and then becomes decadent. The ten generations is based on an approximate calculation where he looks at eleven states and their rise and fall with the 250 years/ten generations being a good average that fits most of them.

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    Thanks for your answer @gktscrk (+1) Always good to have one more academic source! And this one is the first from History perspective that I see!
    – LuizZ
    Nov 28, 2020 at 19:56
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From William's coronation in 1066 until the Act of Union in 1707, and excluding disputed claimants (Matilda, Louis, Jane), repeat reigns (Henry VI Edward IV), and co-monarchs (Philip simultaneous to Mary) but including the Lords Protector, there were 32 Monarchs of England in a span of 641 years, wielding an average of a trifle over 20 years per reign. Yes there are skips - and there are also siblings. It's a bit of an arbitrary calculation, but at least it's an objective basis from which to begin refinements.

Following the Act of Union to the present, and excluding Anne (reigned 1702-07, 1707-14) as a repeat, there are have been 11 Monarchs of Great Britain in 313 years, giving an average reign length of 28.5 years. This is hard evidence, Elizabeth II's longevity notwithstanding, that the "length of a generation" has increased over the past millennia: in Western Europe at least.

From the standpoint of strictly social history I have seen longer figures used, occasionally 25 years but more often 30 years. This reflects the large family sizes typical in most cultures until quite recent times, with the observation that women giving birth frequently from roughly 20 to 40 are creating an average age of giving birth near about to 30.

So the correct value to use will depend, at a minimum, on both the time period under consideration (generations now are longer than previously) and on the point being made (a longer figure may be more appropriate when considering social history as compared to political history).

Monarchs of England From The Conquest until the Act of Union (1066-1707):

  1. William I
  2. William II
  3. Henry I
  4. Stephen
  5. Henry II
  6. Richard I
  7. John
  8. Henry III
  9. Edward I
  10. Edward II
  11. Edward III
  12. Richard II
  13. Henry IV
  14. Henry V
  15. Henry VI (twice)
  16. Edward IV (twice)
  17. Edward V
  18. Richard III
  19. Henry VII
  20. Henry VIII
  21. Edward VI
  22. Mary
  23. Elizabeth
  24. James I
  25. Charles I
  26. Oliver Cromwell
  27. Richard Cromwell
  28. Charles II
  29. James II
  30. Mary II
  31. William III
  32. Anne

Monarchs of the United Kingdom From the Act of Union to the Present Day (1707-2020):

  1. George I
  2. George II
  3. George III
  4. George IV
  5. William IV
  6. Victoria
  7. Edward VII
  8. George V
  9. Edward VIII
  10. George VI
  11. Elizabeth
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    Only 1 generational skip on this list from 1066 to 1707, yes? (E3 to R2). LOTS of generational repeats. Might want to rephrase, and 20 years is too low as a result.
    – C Monsour
    Nov 17, 2020 at 19:11
  • Generational repeats: H1, John, H4, Mary1, Eliz1, J2, Anne
    – C Monsour
    Nov 17, 2020 at 19:16
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    @CMonsour: Did you read my answer? In particular did you read: "It's a bit of an arbitrary calculation, but at least it's an objective basis from which to begin refinements." Any correction I make will be a subjective modification of what is, above, at least a completely objective calculation. Further, I state: "the correct value to use will depend, ... on both the time period under consideration ... and on the point being made ...." There is no single definite and objective answer, and I doubt there can be. I've attempted to provide means for an answer suitable for purpose. Nov 17, 2020 at 19:18
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    And the Cromwells don't really count. So more like 24 generations in 641 years, or about 27 years per generation.
    – C Monsour
    Nov 17, 2020 at 19:19
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    @LuizZ: I always recommend against contributors rushing to accept an answer - even when mine happens to be first. I've seen superb answers not show up for months after a question is first asked. I doubt you will find any answer both specific and objective, for the reason I outline above, but let's wait and see. I've been wrong before. Nov 17, 2020 at 20:33

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