How long is a generation? Longer than I thought…

Coronation of Charlemagne

Coronation of Charlemagne

We hear a lot of silly generalizations about demographic cohorts that we refer to as “generations,” which become particularly absurd when you look at how they are defined. For instance, the only really cool generation, the Baby Boom, supposedly includes people born in 1964.

Which is ridiculous. How can you possibly be a Boomer if you can’t remember JFK’s assassination, the arrival of the Beatles or the introduction of the Ford Mustang? It’s obvious; you can’t — if the Baby Boom has any cultural meaning.

But there’s another problem: Even with that overbroad definition, the “generation” only lasts from 1946 to 1964 — 18 years.

That’s not a generation.

So what is a generation? Not having made a study of it, I’ve tended to think it was in the 20- to 25-year range.

That made particularly good sense to me, since my wife and I had our first and second children at ages 23 and 25. Yes, I’m aware that most people of our generation were a bit slower than that, but I figured that in earlier times, people married and had kids even earlier than we did, so historically, 20 to 25 years made sense.

But today, it struck me to use my family tree to find out how it works in reality — and I was surprised at the result.

I decided to go back as far as I reliably could — to Charlemagne, from whom I (and every other person of mostly European descent) am directly descended. He was, calculated the way I first discovered the connection, my 38th-great grandfather (I’ve since discovered quite a few paths back to Charlemagne, which is a mathematical certainty when you go back that far).

So that means he’s exactly 40 generations back.

Charlemagne was born in 742. I was born in 1953. I subtract one from the other and get 1,211 years. Divide that by 40, and the average generation is 30.275 years.

Even going back through the Middle Ages, when life was supposedly so nasty, brutish and short! And maybe it was, for poor people. And no doubt, most of my ancestors in the 8th century were peasants. Unfortunately, I can’t trace back to them; the records don’t exist.

So I’m stuck with 30 and a quarter years. And it would seem reasonable that the more recent generations were even longer.

And they were, slightly. Let’s go back just 10 generations, to about the time my ancestors were moving to this country. Let’s consider some of my 8th-great grandfathers:

  • Walter Chiles II, born March 20, 1630 in Middlesex, England. (Died in Jamestown, Va.)
  • Capt. Luke Gardiner, born Jan. 11, 1622 in Oxfordshire, England. (Died in Maryland.)
  • Sir Ambrose Crowley III, born Feb. 1, 1658, in Staffordshire, England. (Died in England, but his daughter emigrated.)
  • Richard Pace II, born about 1636, Charles City, Virginia. (Grandson of the famous Richard Pace who saved Jamestown.)

The average length of a generation going back to them is, respectively, 32.3, 33.1, 29.5 and 31.7 years.

So, an average of 31.65 years per generation.

Yes, these are all great-grandfathers; the mothers were usually younger, which might reduce the average if there were more female links in the chains (I later checked, and found those were mostly male connections). I just went with male ancestors for the one-to-one comparison. (Also, when you go back that far, there tends to be a bit more information available about them.)

It just seems to defy reason. Yeah, my notions may seem skewed by having had a child at 23, but our youngest was born when we were 35 — and by the time she started school, when we went to PTA meetings all the other parents seemed way younger than we were. Which argued that most of them didn’t have their kids at 35.

Anyway, that’s what I find. As Bryan likes to say, your mileage may vary…

Talkin' about my generation -- the only cool one, of course.

Talkin’ about my generation — the only cool one, of course.

20 thoughts on “How long is a generation? Longer than I thought…

  1. Karen Pearson

    I think the idea of “generation” runs from the birth of a person to the birth of that person’s first child. These days I think that they use 20 years as standard.

  2. Lynn Teague

    In the colonial era you very seldom see women having children after the age of 40, but they are often recorded having children as early as 15 until around the age of 35. However men very often remarried after a first wife died in childbirth. They were having more children with younger women until later in life. One of my ancestors was still producing children in his 70s, with his fourth wife, when a tree fell on him. You were looking at figures for men, so 30 isn’t that surprising an average age for having a child.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Oops! I take it back! No, they weren’t. I just went and counted. Here’s how the four 10-generation lines break down:

        • To get to Walter Chiles II, I go through 8 men (counting him) and only 2 women.
        • Capt. Luke Gardiner — only 3 women
        • Sir Ambrose Crowley III — only 2 women
        • Richard Pace II — only 2 women (my mother and grandmother; the rest are Paces — so basically, it’s my grandmother’s patrilineal ancestry, I guess you’d say.)

        So, yeah, that could be a significant factor in the average generation being thirtyish…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Yes, it is. Frequently, a person’s mother will be listed only by her first or last name, if not at all, while the father’s line will go back several more generations, with specifics.

            Sometimes it picks back up, though. Over the weekend, I found a female ancestor listed only by her last name, and thought that would be it — but then, I supposed because of the last name, I found full details on both her parents, and was able to go a bit further…

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Here’s the one…

              I found fairly complete info on my 20th great-grandfather, Norman D’Arcy (you may call me “Fitzwilliam” if you like). But my heart sank when I saw he was the “Husband of Unknown Darcy.” But when I followed that link, I saw there was at least a maiden name, “D’Amory.”

              That at least got me her father and grandfather. Probably helped that Dad had his knighthood…

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        And yeah, people went through some spouses.

        When I started out doing my tree, I thought of that as something men did, because of women dying in childbirth.

        My great-grandfather, Alfred Crittenton Warthen, had three wives (having six kids by my great-grandmother, only one by the second, and none by the third). His father, Nathan Benton Warthen, also had three wives. He had nine kids by my great-great grandmother, one by his second, none by the third.

        But then, when I got back to the old country, to Tudor England and earlier, it seemed to become just as common for women to have two or three husbands. That’s because a lot of the men were killed in battle (several in the Wars of the Roses so far), and a disturbing number were beheaded….

        1. Claus2

          How do you find details out about people who were likely no more than commoners being beheaded? The vast majority of people back then lived and died with little more than a birth and death date in church records, if they were lucky. Beheading wasn’t exactly a daily event back then, it was a major event typically reserved for nobility.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I’m talking about the people I have on my tree, which means people about whom records exist, which means people who were prominent in their day.

            I know nothing about the vast majority of my, say, 20th-great grandfathers, because they were likely commoners. But the ones I DO know about tended to get beheaded (or burned, or hung, drawn and quartered) or killed in battle pretty frequently. Almost enough to make you want to be a commoner. I know about quite a few 20th-great-grandfathers, but they are a drop in a bucket, since everyone’s entitled to more than 2 million of those (with a lot of them being doubles, of course).

            Some examples:

            • Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger, my 12th-great grandfather — Led Wyatt’s Rebellion against Bloody Mary, lost his head for it (moral: don’t let rebellions be named after you)
            • His father, also Sir Thomas Wyatt, who ALMOST lost his head when he was sent to the Tower on charges of adultery with Anne Boleyn (his wife’s 2nd cousin, to make it even more sordid). Of several gentlemen charged, he was the only one to survive — possibly because of being buds with Thomas Cromwell.
            • Sir John Oldcastle, 19th-great uncle, executed for heresy and rebellion for being a Lollard leader.
            • Edmund FitzAlan, 9th Earl of Arundel, 21st great-grandfather — He was ordered to be executed with a deliberately dull sword, which meant it took 22 blows to get the job done. It was ordered by the vindictive Queen Isabella, who incidentally was my 1st cousin 21 times removed.

            There are others, but those come to mind. Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out how to sort my tree by “Cause of death.” I’d like to be able to do that…

  3. Scout

    I don’t remember when or why I learned it, but I know it was taught to me as an actual term at some point in school, and what I remember being taught was that a generation was considered to be 30 years.

  4. Dave

    Re: the boomers. Yes, there’s no way that Obama is a boomer, regardless of what demographers may say about someone born in 1961. If you want to get a sense of why many non-boomers don’t have a lot of respect for the boomer generation, think about how non-boomer politicians like Biden and Obama have behaved throughout their political careers vs. how the three most prominent boomer politicians (Bill and Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump) have. The self-indulgence, narcissism, etc. that people associate with the boomers is on full display with that trio of boomers. There’s a new book out on that generation too, titled A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America, by Bruce Cannon Gibney. And speaking of the narcissism of boomers…no, they are not the only cool generation.

    1. bud

      Of course Obama is a baby boomer. You can’t just throw out “alternate facts” whenever in conflicts with your world view.

  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    By the way, another funky thing about generations…

    I used that picture above of The Who to stand for the Boomer generation, mainly because of the song.

    BUT… the only member of the band young enough to be a Boomer was Keith Moon, and he just made it by the skin of his teeth, having been born on Aug. 23, 1946.

    MAYBE the girls in the picture are Boomers — it’s hard to tell because of all that heavy makeup girls wore in the mid-60s.

    Most of the people who created the culture that we lapped up in the ’60s were too old to be members of our generation, however much they may have talked about it

  6. Norm Ivey

    If you look at a graph of the birth rates over the years, the rate began climbing not in 1946, but about 1941. It remained steady until about 1957, and then began to drop. It returned to 1940 levels around 1967. That would be 26 years, and certainly some of those early Boomers were having their own kids by 1967, which would certainly be a generation.


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