A wry view of life for the world-weary

The Meaning Of Life – Part Of Thirty Eight of Forty Two

Multigenerational Hispanic family on porch

How long is a generation?

We talk glibly of once in a generation or the Baby boomer generation but it dawned on me the other day that I really don’t have a clue how long a generation is or, really, how a generation is defined. As the purpose of this series is to shed light on those nagging questions or doubts that creep into the sub-conscious, I decided to find out. Unsurprisingly, the answer isn’t quite as straightforward as you might expect or hope for.

There is a deep fascination with genealogy. Many of us are keen to explore our family history in the hopes of either finding the key to a lost fortune or exposing a skeleton that will give you a bit of kudos at the next dinner party. Generally we are disappointed or our researches peter out down some dead-end. But the key to genealogy is developing a family tree that shows x begat y, although the tree is normally constructed in reverse. The first-born of parents a and b could legitimately (or in some cases illegitimately) be called the start of the next generation and, indeed, this is what is known as a biological generation. The problem is that its duration is specific to each couple and does not have a fixed length. So it is handy for the specific – I am the fourth generation from Joe Bloggs – but not for the general and will even be a moveable feast within a branch of a family.

Consolidating a whole host of biological generations we can develop a familial generation, a sort of rule of thumb which says, broadly, the age at which a woman bears her first-born is y. Generations ago, the value associated to a familial generation was as low as 20 years – a combination of lower overall life expectancy, younger marriages and larger families – but these days it is more likely to be around the 25 year mark or, recognising the trend in certain societies for women to have their first-born nowadays even later, as high as 28. This in itself brings a whole lot of problems with it because it is a sliding scale. 28 may be appropriate today but would be over-egging it by some if we were talking about life a century or so ago.

The next concept is that of a societal generation. This owes its genesis to the French lexicographer, Emile Littre, who in 1863 defined a generation as “all men living more or less at the same time”. The key characteristics are that a bunch of people are born around the same period of time and have exposure to the same formative historical and cultural experiences. So we talk of the Lost generation – those who were born in time to live through and perish during the First World War – or the Baby Boomers – those who never had it so good and were born between the end of the Second World War and the early 1960s. It is a useful form of short-hand to define an era or a set of shared beliefs or experiences but for those looking for numerical exactitude, it is all a bit wishy-washy.

The other end of the spectrum is what is termed Designated Generations where the age for reaching a particular stage in your life cycle is firmly prescribed and static. An example would be the culture of the East African Pokots. All the key things a male can or cannot do are defined by their age, whether it be marriage or the type of hairstyle. Whilst this approach doesn’t take into account biological changes such as increased life expectancy, there is a pleasing degree of certainty with it.

It seems you pays your money and takes your choice. So now we know!

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