Childhood Studies The Concept of Generations
Carolina Gutierrez Muñoz, Julia Brannen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0237


“Generation” is a polysynthetic concept with several meanings that captures the relation between the individual and the collective in both societal and kinship relations, the concept of the life course as individuals age, and collective existence as lived out in the company of time-based cohorts of contemporaries. Karl Mannheim, who presented himself as a sociologist of knowledge rather than history, developed the theory of generations in 1927, during a period of rapid modernization. The ascendancy of the concept today also reflects the rapidity of social change. A key example is the growing imbalance between older and younger populations in Western societies that raises issues of generational justice, especially at times when many governments have cut back public expenditures and welfare benefits. The concept of generations as originally proposed by Mannheim in his germinal essay, Mannheim 1952 (cited under General Overviews, [first translated into English in 1952]), has inspired generations of sociologists. However, the concept has been applied relatively little in empirical research. Mannheim conceived of generations as a problem for historical sociology. In his view, historical context had strong experiential effects on the formative years of a birth cohort (those who were born and grew up in the same period), effects which persist over the life course. In addition, Mannheim proposed the idea of generations as units, by which he meant the ways in which a birth or age cohort responds collectively to a set of social conditions and the ways in which each generations develops its own consciousness and sense of belonging and identity. At the same time, Mannheim was clear that generations were not subjected to the same experiences and that divisions of class and gender were significant. The concept of generations has also been the central territory of anthropology through its study of kinship relations. It is also a focus of demography in its study of populations; of psychology in its focus on the life span and child development; and of sociology in its focus on parenthood, household, and childhood. Within these disciplines and fields, there is considerable variation in the use of the term. Some researchers use it as a bridging concept; some, for example, contextualize family and kinship relations in historical context, while others focus exclusively on intergenerational relationships and processes of intergenerational transmission within families, taking little account of history. In this bibliography we will make certain broad distinctions. First, we consider the literature on the concept of historical generations and linked concepts of the life course and age. We then go on to consider the literature on families and kinship relations as they relate to intergenerational transmission in families and the sociologies of childhood and youth. We end with a section on intergenerational solidarity, fairness, and social policy. The literature includes papers with a conceptual slant, empirical research, textbooks, and works by organizations that produce relevant research.

General Overviews

The Mannheim’s 1927/28 (published in English in 1952) essay on “the problem of generations,” is the key reference point on the subject. The most celebrated exemplar of research in the field is Elder 1999, particularly Elder’s study of those growing up during the Great Depression. Popescu 2019 starts from this work to offer an overview of how different disciplines have developed the concept. Pilcher 1994 shows how Mannheim’s work is not only relevant for the sociological studies of generations, but also for understanding the link between biography and history and between personal and social change, for which Mannheim does not receive sufficient credit. Marshall 1983 and Kertzer 1983 develop an in-depth sociological analysis of the concept, including a methodological discussion. In its focus on generational consciousness, Eyerman and Turner 1998 elucidates the concept’s importance to cultural sociology. Caballero and Baigorri 2019 show how the generations concept affords a conceptual tool that cuts across different disciplines. Purhonen 2016 draws on Bourdieu to critique “generationalism” that tends to caricature generations.

  • Caballero, Manuela, and Artemio Baigorri. “Glocalising the Theory of Generations: The Case of Spain.” Time and Society 28.1 (2019): 333–357.

    DOI: 10.1177/0961463X18783374

    Inspired particularly by the philosopher Ortega y Gasset and by Mannheim, this article shows that generations conceptually crosscuts different disciplines. Drawing on sociology, philosophy, and history, it applies the concept to the identification of six generations in Spain with different collective identities. The authors argue that these generations reflect the social changes in the history of Spain during the 20th century.

  • Elder, Glen H. Children of the Great Depression: Social Change in Life Experience. 25th anniversary ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.

    The work of Glen Elder is both conceptual and empirical in connecting individuals to historical and socioeconomic contexts. In his most famous study, first published in 1974, 167 individuals born in 1920–1921 in Oakland, California, were followed through the 1960s. Here Elder assesses the influence of the Great Depression on the life course of his subjects over two generations.

  • Eyerman, Ron, and Bryan S. Turner. “Outline of a Theory of Generations.” European Journal of Social Theory 1.1 (1998): 91–106.

    DOI: 10.1177/136843198001001007

    This article applies Mannheim’s concept of generations to cultural sociology, bringing to bear Bourdieu’s concept of habitus—the emotions, attitudes, preferences, and dispositions that bind members of a cohort, and how generational cohorts exercise control, as in excluding other cohorts from scarce resources, material, and cultural. It is also concerned with the development of generational consciousness: how generational cohorts embody collective identities in response to formative events.

  • Kertzer, David. “Generation as a Sociological Problem.” Annual Review of Sociology 9.1 (1983): 125–149.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    This paper examines the multiple meanings of the concept that arise from Mannheim’s legacy. It points to some major conceptual and methodological problems in its application: the vagueness of the concept’s operationalization, a failure to link different (family) generations in studying transmission between generations, and a lack of attention to life course phase.

  • Mannheim, Karl. “The Problem of Generations.” In Karl Mannheim: Essays. Edited by Paul Kecskemeti, 276–322. London: Routledge, 1952.

    In this seminal work, first published in 1927/1928 and also republished in 1972, Mannheim defines generations as those born in the same year who share “a common location in the historical dimension of the social process” (p. 290). Mannheim also distinguishes between generations as actuality and unit; the latter is formed when peers are exposed to the same phenomenon and respond collectively in the same way. Cohort membership is subject therefore to historical context that shapes cultures and subjectivities.

  • Marshall, Victor W. “Generations, Age Groups and Cohorts: Conceputal Distinctions.” Canadian Journal on Aging/La Revue Canadienne Du Vieillissement 2.2 (1983): 51–62.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0714980800015701

    Drawing on Mannheim’s concept, Marshall defines related concepts for the sociological analysis of age relations. In this text he distinguishes between methodological and theoretical approaches to the phenomena of generations, cohorts, and age groups. The paper offers a good starting point for the understanding of relevant concepts related to the subject of generations.

  • Pilcher, Jane. “Mannheim’s Sociology of Generations: An Undervalued Legacy.” British Journal of Sociology 45.3 (1994): 481–495.

    DOI: 10.2307/591659

    Pilcher offers a close analysis of Mannheim’s seminal concept, suggesting that sociology has paid insufficient attention to it. She suggests that Mannheim’s work is not only relevant to understanding generations, but that it also contributes to several other sociological issues, such as concepts of time and the relationship between the biological and the social.

  • Popescu, Alexandra. “The Brief History of Generation—Defining the Concept of Generation: An Analysis of Literature Review.” Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology 10.2 (2019): 15–30.

    This paper gives an overview of the development of the concept. Starting with Mannheim’s work, it reviews philosophical, demographic, sociological, and psychological theorizations showing how the concept of generations has recently attracted the interest of researchers. It discusses empirical and theoretical papers that demonstrate a failure to reach a consensus in its definition. It offers a good synopsis of the state of the art.

  • Purhonen, Semi. “Generations on Paper: Bourdieu and the Critique of ‘Generationalism.’” Social Science Information 55.1 (2016): 94–114.

    DOI: 10.1177/0539018415608967

    This article provides an antidote to so-called generationalism. Drawing on the work of Bourdieu, who rarely used the concept, the paper offers a critique of the naïve and simplistic use of the concept; that is, that generations are somehow “ready-made.” It points to the importance that Bourdieu places on the articulation of a generational experience and the engagement of individuals within social space.

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