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Generations – What, Why and How they are – Prof. S. Shyam Prasad

Feb 01, 2022.


In the world of business, we speak about generations. I along with others is researching different behaviours of generations towards marketing efforts of firms. Instead of accepting the idea of generations as such, I decided to understand it in little more details. This write-up is about what generations are and why do we form generations and how are they demarked. A deeper and closer study about generations surprised me.

Generations – What are they?

The word “Generation” can take up a wide variety of meanings depending upon the way it is used. Employed as a verb, it means the production or creation of something like electricity generation for example or the propagation of living organisms; procreation. Generation as noun stands to be interpreted in many different ways such as, i) those born during the approximately in a said period, ii) this period is taken as approximately thirty years since this is the time in which one grows from a child to adulthood and have their own family, iii) another meaing is the family members who form a singly stage in hierarchy and also iv) a single stage in the development of a type of product or technology. (Internet) However, in social science, it is often used to denote a cohort and in this sense, it means “people within a delineated population who experience the same significant events within a given period of time” (Pilcher, 1994). These generational cohorts, also known as “social generations”, are used as the basis for sociological analysis. While some believe that these cohorts are one of the fundamental social categories in society, some others argue that factors such as class, gender, race, and education, among others are more important. The concept of social generation as understood now came in vogue during the 19th century; earlier, “generation” referred to family relationships and not broader social groupings.

Generations – Why are they?

It is easy to understand the concept of generation referring to family relationships; but what is the need for developing the idea of “social generation”? In the study of generations, Karl Mannheim, an important proponent wrote in 1923 an essay titled “The Problem of Generations”. According to Mannheim, the social changes experienced by one during the youth days are the foundations for the formation of generations. An important observation made by him was that during such social changes, the cohorts are in all probability will share similar character. He also proposed three things common between them (Gilleard & Higgs, 2002):

1. Shared temporal location – i.e they are born during the same period,

2. Shared historical location – i.e. they are exposed the similar environmental period and

3. Shared sociocultural lovation – i.e. they share similar consciousness or “entelechy”.

Strauss-Howe generational theory, outlining a pattern of generations repeating throughout American history, was postulated by authors William Strauss and Neil Howe. Their theory became so influential that it not only reignited the interest in “generations’ but also laid the foundation for the creation of opportunities in that area for an industry of consulting and publishing (Hoover, 2009). But this theory is not without opposition; many argue that it is not supported by rigorous evidence (Brooks, 2000; Lind, 1997; Giancola, 2006). However, Strauss and Howe continued their narrative and followed up “Generations” with “Millennials Rising”, “13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?” and  ”The Fourth Turning” where they have reprised their argument.

The Pew Research Center, based in Washington D.C, an apolitical body, provides data on social issues and demographic trends prevailing in the US and the world. They have been studying the peoples’ behaviour and have described different generations which seems to be popular and used globally. Figure 1 depicts the different generations.

Figure 1 – The different generations

Generations – How are they?

An important query at this point is, how are the generations identified? The world’s major events such as wars, economic changes, the emergence of newer technologies and global events such as COVID-19, etc., have a great impact on the youth between 17 and 23 years of age and leave a mark on them (Parment A. , 2013). These events shape their values within that group or cohort that have a lasting effect (Rogler, 2002). However, two Duke University sociologists Hughes & O’Rand (2005) contradict this claim and argue that research doesn’t always support the assumption that people are particularly impressionable early in life.

It is agreed by the Pew Research Center that creating a cohort is not a perfect science (Dimock, 2019). But, their boundaries are not decided without any basis. Although generations are considered by their span, there is no universally agreed formula on the length of the span. As seen from figure 1, different generations have varied length spans. Hence, the demarcation of generations is confusing, to say the least. A sociology professor at Columbia University, Tom DiPrete says that “I think the boundaries end up getting drawn to some extent by the media, and the extent to which people accept them or not varies by the generation (Bump, 2014).” Yet people say we gain a better idea about their behaviour by grouping them generation wise (Parment, 2011). And others say that these generational cohorts exhibit similar values and lifestyles and so they can be used as market segments (Lyons, Duxbury, & Higgins, 2005). The saga continues. As stated by Strauss and Howe, ”Human history seems logical in afterthought but a mystery in forethought.”

Concluding Observations

I would like to repeat Frank Giancola  on the major issues with the generational approach which I endorse. They are as follows :

  1. The assumptions regarding generational theory are not fully supported by research and the proponents admit its imperfection and deficiencies. The hypothesis that young people are more impressionable is supported but the other hypothesis that the basic traits of the person do not vary and the cohorts experience the same activities or events in the same is not.
  2. None of these – generational articles or papers – is published in any academic journals. This by itself is a hint and a proof that the concept is just a fad with not long-term value.

3. Hence, the generation gap is an idea that is more myth than reality.

I think we should treat individuals based on their merit alone.

Works Cited

  1. Brooks, D. (2000, November 5). What’s the Matter With KidsToday? Not a Thing. The New York Times. Retrieved December 2, 2021, from
  2. Bump, P. (2014, March 26). Here Is When Each Generation Begins and Ends, According to Facts. Retrieved December 03, 2021, from The Atlantic:
  3. Dimock, M. (2019, January 17). Defining generations: Where Millennials end and Generation Z begins. Retrieved October 30, 2021, from Pew Research Center:
  4. Giancola, F. (2006, December 1). The Generation Gap: MoreMyth Than Reality. Human Resource Planning. Retrieved December 2, 2021, from
  5. Gilleard, C., & Higgs, P. (2002). The third age: Class, cohort orgeneration? Ageing and Society, 22(3), 369-382. doi:10.1017/s0144686x0200870x
  6. Hoover, E. (2009, October 11). The Millennial Muddle. TheChronicle of Higher Education Archived( Retrieved December 2, 2021, from
  7. Hughes, M., & O’Rand, A. (2005). The Lives and Times of the Baby Boomers. In R. Farley, & C J Haaga |eds), The American People. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  8. Internet. (n.d.). Dictionary. Retrieved December 2, 2021, from Google search:
  9. Lind, M. (1997, January 26). Generation Gaps. Retrieved December 2, 2021, from
  10. Lyons, S., Duxbury, L., & Higgins, C. (2005). Are Gender Differences in Basic Human Values a Generational Phenomenon? Sex Roles, 53((9-10)), 763-778. doi:10.1007/s11199-005-7740-4
  11. Parment, A. (2011). Generation Y in Consumer and Labour Markets. New York: Routledge.
  12. Parment, A. (2013). Generation Y vs. Baby Boomers: Shopping behavior, buyer involvement and implications for retailing. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 20, 189-199. doi:10.1016/j.jretconser.2012.12.001
  13. Pilcher, J. (1994, September). Mannheim’s Sociology ofGenerations: An undervalued legacy. British Journal of Sociology , 45(3), 481-495. Retrieved from
  14. Rogler, L. (2002). Historical generations and psychology. American Psychologist, 27, 1013-1023.

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