Generational Theory


Generational Change Theory


Identifying and drawing consequential distinctions among generations

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … temporally and culturally distinct mode of being
  • Knowing is … embodying generationally specific traits
  • Learner is … a generational representative
  • Learning is … acculturating
  • Teaching is … n/a (largely irrelevant)


Ancient, but only within the last century as a popular discourse


Generational Theory addresses differences across generations. It comprises discourses that range from the academic-and-grounded to the popular-but-unfounded. Among the former, matters of evolving political, technological, and environmental conditions figure prominently, highlighting the co-evolution of humanity’s circumstances and cultural sensibilities. Among the latter, intergenerational differences are often exaggerated and indexed more to decades of birth than to evolving circumstances. Across both cases, significant implications for education are posited as consequential differences in learner attitude and behavior are named.
Academic Treatments of Generational Theory
  • Pulse-Rate Hypothesis (Hans Jaeger, 1980s) – the notion that a population can be parsed into a sequence of discrete cohorts, each with a distinct identity linked to the timing of the formative years (typically: ages 0–12). Examples include:
    • Strauss–Howe Generational Theory (Fourth Turning Theory) (William Strauss & Neil Howe, 1990s) – an argument that history unfolds according to recurring generational archetypes, based on analyses of American and global history
  • Impulse Hypothesis (Hans Jaeger, 1980s) – the notion that perceptual distinctions arise among generations as specific historical events compel younger people to perceive the world and engage differently from their elders. Examples include:
    • Theory of Generations (Sociology of Generations) (Karl Mannheim, 1920s) – defining a “generation” in terms of individuals who have all experienced a historical event that is associated with significant social and/or cultural transformation
Popular Treatments of Generational Theory
Overwhelmingly, popular discourse on generations difference is more reflective of the Pulse-Rate Hypothesis than the Impulse Hypothesis – but the notions are blended in the most popular model, which combines acknowledgments of major historical events with a more-recent tendency toward demarcations based on steady 15–20-year intervals. While other models have been developed that are specific to various populations, the most commonly invoked in the modern, western context includes the following generations:
  • Greatest Generation (G.I. Generation) (term popularized by Tom Brokaw) – born between 1901 and 1927, and defined according to the age of most soldiers in World War II
  • Silent Generation (Lucky Few Generation) – born 1928–1945, this cohort came of age during a relatively peaceful era (compared to previous generations) and was is associated with rapid growth in prosperity in the western world
  • Baby Boomers (Me Generation) – born 1946–1964, in a significant baby boom following World War II, noted for taking advantage of post-world-war prosperity, for intense self-interest, and for mounting opposition to oppressive and biased policies and structures, came to age prior to the digital revolution
  • Generation X (Gen X; Latchkey Generation; MTV Generation; Baby Bust Generation) – born 1965–1980, associated with a drop in birth rates after the post-war baby boom and with formative years when digital technologies were proliferating, noted for comfort with and savvy around technology
  • Millennials (Generation Y; Gen Y; Gen Me; Gen We; Echo Boomers) – born 1981–1994/96, the first Digital Natives(see below) who grew up around mobile devices and the Internet, noted for heightened awareness of collectivity and for whom social media figures centrally in relationships, whose preferences for entertainment shift from television to streaming services
  • Generation Z (Gen Z, iGeneration, Post-Millennials, Homeland Generation; Zoomers) born 1997–early-2010s, who have always been immersed in a hyper-connected social world and for whom online-activity is a major and integrated aspect of existence
  • Generation Alpha (Gen Alpha) – born entirely in the 21st century, from the early-2010s through the mid-to-late 2020s, and so not yet associated with any essentialized markers
Subdiscourses and Constructs Associated with Generational Theory
A number of notions relevant to formal education have arisen alongside Generational Theory:
  • Digital Divide (1990s) – a descriptive device invoked in comparisons of groups who have access to and benefit to digital technologies and those who do not
  • Digital Immigrants (Marc Prensky, 2000s) – descriptor applied to one whosesignificant encounters with digital technologies began after the formative years (contrast: Digital Natives)
  • Digital Natives (Marc Prensky, 2000s) – descriptor applied to one who has been immersed in digital technologies from birth (contrast: Digital Immigrants)
  • Generation Gap (Generational Gap) – a catch-all construct, originally applied to in the 1960s to label perceived differences between Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation, currently generalized to refer to any perceived differences in beliefs, values, preferences, lifestyles, and imagined necessities between two age groups
  • Generationism – the conviction that one generation is better than another
  • Intergenerationality (Inter-Generational Contract) – the interactions between generations, typically examined through lenses of conflict, privilege, and power
  • Transgenerational Design (James Pirkl, 1980s) – consistent with Emergent Design Discourses, and highly resonant with Universal Design for Learning, discourse that focuses on products and contexts that can accommodate the widest possible range of consumers, especially across age groups


Commentators tend to agree that there is obvious educational value in attending to cultural evolutions that contribute both to the emergence of different sorts of learners and to needs for different sorts of learnings. However, in the tendencies to rely on arbitrary dates, to allow major events to eclipse the significance of subtle-but-ongoing evolutions, to essentialize generational characteristics, and to deploy those qualities as explanatory principles, commentators argue that Generational Theory risks overstepping its reach and, in consequence, may be simultaneously highlighting anachronistic aspects of formal education while failing to offer any meaningful advice on ameliorating the situation.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Extremely diffuse

Status as a Theory of Learning

Generational Theory is a not a theory of learning, but it could be described as “discourse on learners,” as various associated notions are invoked with some frequency in discussions of changing demographics, teacher frustration with students, and other evolving issues in education.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Generational Theory is not a theory of teaching, but it has been deployed as a bases for critiques of traditional and contemporary teaching practices.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Most contemporary versions of Generational Theory are more popular than scientific in nature. It is easily demonstrated that they are prompted by and pointing to important phenomena, but few aspects of Generational Theory do so in a manner that approaches the standards of scientific inquiry.


  • Baby Boomers (Me Generation)
  • Digital Divide
  • Digital Immigrants
  • Digital Natives
  • Generation Alpha (Gen Alpha)
  • Generation Gap (Generational Gap)
  • Generation X (Gen X; Latchkey Generation; MTV Generation; Baby Bust Generation)
  • Generation Z (Gen Z, iGeneration, Post-Millennials, Homeland Generation; Zoomers)
  • Generationism
  • Greatest Generation (G.I. Generation)
  • Impulse Hypothesis (Hans Jaeger, 1980s)
  • Intergenerationality (Inter-Generational Contract)
  • Millennials (Generation Y; Gen Y; Gen Me; Gen We; Echo Boomers)
  • Pulse-Rate Hypothesis
  • Silent Generation (Lucky Few Generation)
  • Strauss–Howe Generational Theory (Fourth Turning Theory)
  • Theory of Generations (Sociology of Generations)
  • Transgenerational Design

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Generational Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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