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December 17, 2002

The Role of Generation, Age, and Shared Historical Experience in Causing Social Change in America

WASHINGTON, DC—Americans' beliefs and behavior have changed dramatically in the last several decades. It is often surmised that attitudes and ideas of a younger generation displace those of their parents and grandparents, but sociologist Duane F. Alwin, Pennsylvania State University, discusses whether significant historical events or processes linked to aging might have a greater impact.

In his article “Generations X, Y and Z: Are They Changing America?,” Alwin explores the complex reality behind the theory that generations influence the attitudes and beliefs of America. His study of generations has shown that social change results as much from shifts in individual lives—due to aging or historical events—as from the progression of generations. His analysis appears in the fall/winter 2002 issue of the American Sociological Association’s Contexts magazine.

“Next to characteristics like social class, race, and religion, generation is probably the most common explanatory tool used by the press and also by social scientists to account for differences among people,” says Alwin.

Generation refers to all people born within the same time frame (i.e., an age cohort). The interpretation of why generational differences occur depends on one’s willingness to make substantial assumptions about other processes (e.g., how aging affects attitudes) that assist in developing reasonable interpretations, according to Alwin.

Alwin acknowledges the possibility that some eras and social movements (e.g., the civil rights movement, women’s movement) provide distinctive experiences for youth during particular times. Sharing these common formative experiences contributes to a generation’s unique worldview, which remains a powerful force in their lives.

Another possibility is that people change in response to specific historical events or periods, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A third possibility is that change is only in one segment of the population, such as Roman Catholics' attitude changes spawned by the recent news of sexual abuse by priests.

“It is often relatively easy to construct a picture of generational differences by comparing data from different age groups in social surveys and polls,” says Alwin, “but determining what produced the data is considerably more complex.”

A given group of people’s sense of trust is shaped by the degree of social connectedness in the formative years of that group's age cohort, according to Robert Putnam, Harvard University, author of Bowling Alone. Yet, Alwin argues that there are problems with this conclusion because while the data appear to show a generational difference, age might be as plausible an explanation of the differences (i.e., trust in people may go up as people mature).

People’s trust in government, on the other hand, is another matter—it depends not on what generation you are born into, or your age, but almost entirely on what the government does and the surrounding historical events (e.g., Watergate, the Whitewater scandal, or the government’s response to global terrorism), according to Alwin.

“Society reflects, at any given time, the sum of its generations,” says Alwin. “Where one set of cohorts is especially large—like the Baby Boomers—its lifestyle dominates the society as it passes through the life course.”

Because of its large size, a generation such as the Baby Boomers may dominate the society's taste in music and clothes of the time, but where there are no major social and cultural differences among generations, generational succession cannot explain social change. However, where generations persistently differ, their succession will produce social change.

Alwin concludes that the effects of generations on society may depend very much on when one takes the "snapshot" of generational differences, and how they differ might depend on which groups in society are examined. The reality is often more complex than simple “generational” arguments would suggest.

Members of the media interested in a copy of Alwin’s article should contact Johanna Ebner, ASA Public Information Office (202-383-9005 x332, Further information on ASA's Contexts magazine, published by the University of California Press in Berkeley, can be found at

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