Happy smiling boy on shoulder dad looking at camera. Three different generations ages: grandfather father and child son together.

Generational Psychology

Why do People From Different Generations Act Differently? 

In the field of social science, “generation” refers to a group of people born and living at about the same time who have similar ideas, problems, and attitudes. In casual conversation we take it for granted that people from different generations think and act in particular ways - think the eternal “Boomers” vs. “Millennials” culture war. Generational monikers are verging towards the language of horoscopes in their fluidity and prescriptiveness. Is there any science to back Zoomers’ claims that Millennials are overly sensitive and emotional, or Millennials claims that Boomers are intolerant? 

Generation Cohorts

Popular names for generational cohorts in the United States come primarily from novelists, journalists, and academics writing on the subject. Psychologists and social scientists have explored whether these concepts hold up to scientific scrutiny. This article will explore the origins of each generational term, and what clinicians and researchers have discovered through their practice. 

  • The Lost Generation - Author and art collector Gertrude Stein is often credited with coining the first moniker for a generation - the Lost Generation - in reference to those born roughly 1880-1900* who came of age during World War I. Her phrase was quoted in the epigraph of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” which famously features a group of friends and lovers whose lives are transformed through the trauma of World War I. This generation is called “Lost” because of the perceived moral and social disorientation of the public consciousness that followed the war. The last known member of the Lost Generation passed away in 2018.
  • The Greatest Generation  - The next generation of the 20th century wouldn’t be named until over 70 years later with the 1998 publication of journalist Tom Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation.” Living, fighting, and dying through at least two global crises - The Great Depression and World War II - has long distinguished this cohort as particularly resilient and self-sacrificing. Brokaw’s work was inspired by the 40th anniversary of D-Day, and is an unabashedly admiring portrait of this generation. Some contemporary scholars criticize the name as revisionist considering the truly complex history of WWII in particular, but the name has stuck. Living members of this generation are in their 90s or older.** 
  • The Silent Generation  - The term for the Silent Generation, born 1920 - 1940, has many possible origins, but its first recorded use is in a 1951 TIME Magazine essay. This generation’s perceived reticence to speak out could be associated with their coming of age during the McCarthy era when even privately held political and personal beliefs, real or imagined, could become grounds to upend your life. In the U.S. this generation is particularly small, which is commonly attributed to low birth rates following the Great Depression. Surviving members of this generation are in their late 70’s - early 90’s. 
  • Baby Boomers  - Baby Boomers, born 1940 - 1960, have also been known as the Rock and Roll Generation. Many of them were born during the so-called “Baby Boom” following soldiers’ return from WWII. The Washington Post came up with the name in 1977. This generation grew up during the Cold War and came of age during the 1960’s and 70’s counterculture movements and the Vietnam War. Due to their relative size and their entering the workforce during a time of economic prosperity the Baby Boomer generation has been considered profoundly influential in the U.S. and abroad. Boomers are currently in their 60’s and 70’s. 
  • Generation X - Generation X, 1960-1980, is also known as the Latchkey Generation. The term originated from a photo essay by Robert Capa, and was popularized by subsequent books on the subject. The X stands for an unknown variable, and refers to the cohort’s perceived resistance of definition. Researchers identified rising parental divorce rates and the increase of two-income households as formative factors in this generation’s outlook on life, and some have linked it to both greater independence and greater cynicism. Generation X are currently between mid 40’s to late 50’s. 
  • Millennials - Millennials, 1980 - 2000, were named in the influential book Generations by Neil Howe. Originally known as Generation Y, simply because it followed X in the alphabet, this generation is often defined through the emergence of the internet as a global force of connection. It’s also associated with several formative moments in the U.S. - 9/11, the Great Recession, and Covid-19. Many Millennials came of age and entered the workforce during an era of economic insecurity, and tend to carry more debt than their predecessors and have fewer children. Millennials are between late 20’s and early 40’s. 
  • Generation Z and Beyond - Generation Z and Generation Alpha are our two newest generations. Gen Z or “Zoomers” are in their pre-teens and early to mid-20’s. Alphas have only just been named - they’re everyone born between now and 1997. According to recent Stanford affiliated research, “a typical Gen Zer is a self-driver who deeply cares about others, strives for a diverse community, is highly collaborative and social, values flexibility, relevance, authenticity and non-hierarchical leadership, and, while dismayed about inherited issues like climate change, has a pragmatic attitude about the work that has to be done to address those issues.” It’s a little early to analyze Generation Alpha, but both are often identified as the only generations to have spent their entire lives with access to the internet. 

Can Your Generation Determine Your Personality? 

Yes and no! A few perspectives demonstrate possible tangible differences among folks from various generations: 

1. The Technology Argument 

Differences between generations may result from the development of new technologies that distinguish their lifetimes. 

  • Going back to the Lost Generation, new technology developed during World War I made its impact on soldiers and civilians exceptionally brutal, trading horses and swords for tanks and mortars. The resulting devastation and untreated PTSD of survivors is thought to have made this generation cynical and disillusioned. 
  • Technology played a huge role in the development of Generation X as well, particularly the increasing availability of music, film, and video games, leading to another name for this cohort: the MTV Generation. The rise of the internet and personal computers among young people largely unsupervised by working parents is thought to have made Gen X individualistic and self-protective. 

2. The Economics Argument 

Each generation has encountered a different range of economic circumstances, from bust to boom, that have changed the organization of their lives. The Greatest Generation is often associated with The Great Depression. This national trauma required survivors to develop greater thrift and resiliency, changing the way they thought about money and resources. Home life was impacted as well as more homemakers were required to join the workforce to keep families afloat. Rationing at home and the economic boom brought about by WWII related manufacturing are thought to have made this generation hardworking and self-sacrificing. - Millennials have their own economic crises to navigate. The 2008 recession made entering the workforce after college a dicey prospect no matter how educated this cohort was. The large student loans typical among members of this generation also contributed to a longer runway towards independent living, and a lower incidence of marriage and home ownership. Some have speculated that these developments delayed Millennials’ maturity. 

3. The Big Five Theory 

The Association of Psychological Science published a study in 2022 using the “Big Five” personality traits (extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism) to track developments in personality among generational cohorts over time. Their goal was to determine whether these personality traits followed the same rate of change and trajectory from generation to generation - does one generation develop agreeableness earlier in life than others, for example. Their findings both support and undermine our common understanding of generational personality. 

“People born at different times indeed differ, on average, in how conscientious, agreeable, neurotic, extroverted, and open they are. These differences were more pronounced in younger…people for maturity-related traits [higher conscientiousness and agreeableness and lower neuroticism]...We found little evidence that the rates by which personality changes differ across historical times. “ 

Essentially, what our society values at different times has a big impact on the speed at which generations develop maturity, but the differences matter less and less the older we get. Old people from every generation are more likely to share personality traits than people of different ages within the same generation. On top of this, gender and race play a much bigger part in personality development than age; for example, expectations for women of any generation are different from expectations for the males in their cohort. 

In Conclusion 

It makes sense that someone born at a different time enjoys different pastimes, uses different slang, and reflects the values of the culture they grew up in. However, researchers argue that these differences are not as definitive or prescriptive as we portray them. We most often invoke a generational name to dismiss someone or to blame them for a large-scale problem, but each generation has its own unique contribution to make to our society. If we appreciate that people are complex individuals we can connect with over common ground no matter how old they are, we are much closer to an accurate understanding of the world. Maybe most importantly, we are also better positioned to benefit from everyone’s life experiences if we can avoid putting anyone into a box. 

*Researchers have assigned specific date ranges for each generation but we decided to round them off here for clarity.

**As of 2024.