Why Different Generations Think Differently

The Sociological Problem of Generations, as Karl Mannheim stated, has presented an issue for social and non-social scientists alike over generations. The idea that different generations tend to think and act in ways distinct from other ones has been a common observation throughout modern history and has attracted the attention of political scientists and sociologists in recent years, as the political ramifications of this behaviour have become clearer. Many recent political events have made clear the divide between generations, or generational units, in modern sociology. It appears that in modern political competition, age or generational cohort has become one of the most prominent characteristics which determine how one will vote, or who one will support in political competitions.

This essay will consist of an overview of Mannheim’s theory of the sociological problem of generations, starting with a summary of the key terms, then proceeding to discuss how and why generations come to think differently, and finally the implications of this.

Tréplica, D. (2022). Karl Mannheim [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons.

Sociological Problem of Generations

The first task when studying generations is to define what a generation actually is. According to Mannheim, a generation can be described as “a group that is distinctive in any number of respects by virtue of having experienced a specific set of social, economic, technological, and/or political circumstances at a formative period in their lives” (Stoker, 2014, p. 378). Such a notion is based on two ideas: first, there is a formative period in human lives; secondly, people can be grouped into a generation based on the historical environment in which they experienced these formative years.

Regarding the first point, Mannheim (1952) asserts that the formative years are a period during youth in which early impressions and environmental data are unconsciously consumed, forming the individual’s natural worldview. According to Mannheim (1952), this natural worldview solidified in the formative years forms the first and most concrete strata of the developing human consciousness, with later less significant impressions following to form the second, third, and other minor strata. This process of stratification infers the predominance of first impressions and childhood experiences in the formation of ‘the self’, as they create the baseline view of the world, to which all other further impressions relate themselves. In this sense, “all later experiences tend to receive their meaning from this original set [of impressions] [...] and even if the rest of one’s life consisted in one long process of negation and destruction of the natural worldview acquired in youth, the determining influence of these early impressions would still be predominant” (Mannheim, 1926, p. 177). Mannheim’s second point, as briefly mentioned above, is that individuals who went through their formative years during similar historical periods can be grouped into the same generation. It follows then that individuals belonging to the same generation or age group share “a common location in the social and historical process” and are thereby limited to “a specific range of potential experience, predisposing them for a certain characteristic mode of thought and experience” (Mannheim, 1952, p. 168).

Pierce, T. (2004). Child reading at Brookline Booksmith [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons.

Yet this definition of a generation is still not specific enough to determine someone’s tendencies of thought and action. According to Mannheim (1952), individuals of the same age are “only united as an actual generation in so far as they participate in the characteristic social and intellectual currents of their society and period, and in so far as they have an active or passive experience of the interactions of forces, which made up the new situation“ (p. 182). This group was summed up by Mannheim (1952) as a ’generation in actuality’ (p. 185). The final and most specific cohort, the generation unit, is defined as the groups within a generation in actuality who share an “identity of responses, a certain affinity in the way in which all move with and are formed by their common experiences“ (Mannheim, 1952, p. 187). This takes into account that even those individuals who experience their formative years during the same historical period and location will still be influenced by them differently based on their social location, loosely analogous to class. Therefore, with the added qualifiers of social location and experience of the same social and intellectual currents, a definable set of beliefs and assumptions can be made about a ’generation unit’ whose formative years occurred during the same historical period. To summarise in the words of Mannheim (1952) himself: “Youth experiencing the same concrete historical problems may be said to be part of the same generation in actuality; while those groups within the same generation in actuality which work up the material of their common experiences in different specific ways, constitute separate generation units” (p. 184).

An example of these terms could be the experience of individuals in the United States undergoing their formative years during the Civil Rights Era. In this situation, all of the individuals in their formative years actively experiencing the current social and intellectual currents of the Civil Rights Movement would constitute the same generation in actuality (Stoker, 2014). However, those who developed different intellectual and social responses to the historical experiences of the time shared by all in this cultural region would constitute different generational units (Stoker, 2014). Therefore, all the individuals of this period who underwent their formative years and came in contact with the common social and intellectual forces of the Civil Rights Movement could constitute a single generation in actuality. The differing experiences and reactions of these individuals due to their social location, and the subsequent modes of thinking which arose, would place these individuals into differing generational units.

istockphotock.com (2008). Intergenerational Relationships Can Transform Our Future [Photograph].

Effects of Generations on Social Life

In determining the effects of generations on social life, one of the most important concepts is that of ‘fresh contact’. In sociology, fresh contact refers to a new experience in which one leaves their own social group and enters a new one, is then subjected to new experiences, and finally undergoes a corresponding mental and even spiritual reorientation to this new environment (Mannheim, 1952). In relation to the question of the effects of generations, fresh contact refers to the process by which new ‘psychophysical units’ (young children) come into contact with a historical cultural heritage during their earliest years, and subsequently relate themselves to it. According to Mannheim (1952), this fresh contact of the new individual with the accumulated cultural heritage is a much more radical process than an adult moving from one social group to another, since the young child’s consciousness is yet to stratify: as such, children will relate to their inherited cultural heritage in a completely novel manner. Such a process is in part responsible for the continual transformation of culture as time progresses, as it results in a “re-evaluation of our [cultural] inventory, and teaches us both to forget that which is no longer useful and to covet that which has yet to be won” (Mannheim, 1952, p. 173). This leads to a process in which traditional cultural material, unconsciously consumed during the formative periods of young individuals of a completely novel consciousness, is “transformed to fit a prevailing new situation“ (Mannheim, 1926, p. 173).

With the constant rejuvenation of culture through the addition of new life also comes a similar form of cultural rejuvenation through death. The biological feature of death allows for a form of ‘social forgetting‘ which in conjunction with the addition of new life to the system, allows for a further transformation of cultural heritage (Mannheim, 1952, p. 174). The result of these two processes is the creation of new modes of thinking and behaviour, of taking and applying the traditional information handed down from previous generations to a new set of objective conditions. It is this point which is primarily responsible for differences in the beliefs of different generations, though as noted previously, this dynamic of cultural rejuvenation is also interacting with one’s social location, which is also a determining factor in determining one’s final ‘generational unit’. It is further important to clarify that since this process of rejuvenation and interaction takes place continuously, the question of generational gaps is not black and white and cannot be definitively marked off.

Deviant Art (2004). An Old Man with his Grandson [Photograph].

There is a discussion within the related literature as well on the relationship between the political views of parents and their children. One aspect mentioned by Carmen (2007) and Alford and Hibling (2008) is that the relationship between the views of parents and children is at least partially genetic. Despite this, such literature forms the minority view, as traditional debates posit that “social learning and the dynamics of social influence within families prompt children to acquire political orientations that resemble those of the parents“ (Stoker, 2014, p. 380). That being said, even if the values and political orientations of the next generation are similar to that of the parents, the new objective conditions ensure that these values and orientations are manifested in a distinct manner (Stoker, 2014).

The effect of generational differences on politics is not always clear, but there are significant trends from which certain conclusions can be drawn. In the United States, e. g., the political views of Millennials (1981 – 1996) and the Silent Generation (1928 – 19945) vary significantly on topics such as foreign policy, immigration, and same-sex marriage, among other things (Pew Research Center, 2022). It has also been noted that Millennials have an increasingly liberal outlook when compared to older generations (Pew Research Center, 2022). Given these divergent views, conflict with older generations has been inevitable in many countries, including the United States, due to differences in outlook and how to react to current challenges. While the intergenerational differences in outlook are well established, what is driving the trends is less clear. Younger generations these days are less religious, more ethnically diverse, more highly educated, and have grown up in an age of technology with a historical milieu that is significantly different from those of older generations (Stoker, 2014). It is likely that all of these factors have in some way come to bear on the development of the youngest generation, as similar factors did on the generations that came before them.

Das Bunderarchiv. (1988). Berlin, Michael Jackson-Konzert, Wartende [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons.


In conclusion, generations are primarily the result of groups of individuals experiencing similar historical circumstances during the formative periods of their life. These historical circumstances, when combined with one’s social location, can be used to place an individual within a generational unit and a potential range of experiences and beliefs. As time progresses and new beings come into contact with an inherited cultural heritage, they unconsciously adopt the traditional data during their formative years, while new objective conditions force a transformation of this cultural heritage as it is newly applied by a novel being, to a novel situation. The result is a transformation of thought and action, and the rise of generational differences.

Bibliographical References

Gusfield, J. R. (1957). The Problem of Generations in an Organizational Structure. Social Forces, 35(4), 323–330. https://doi.org/10.2307/2573321

Mannheim, Karl (1952). "The Problem of Generations". In Kecskemeti, Paul (ed.). Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge: Collected Works, Volume 5. New York: Routledge. pp. 276–322.

Spitzer, A. B. (1973). The Historical Problem of Generations. The American Historical Review, 78(5), 1353–1385. https://doi.org/10.2307/1854096

Stoker, L. (2014). Reflections on the Study of Generations in Politics. De Gruyter, 12(3), 377–396. https://escholarship.org/content/qt4tp4h74g/qt4tp4h74g_noSplash_fd5d39182903ab6800804d260c5739fa.pdf

The Generation Gap in American Politics. (2020, August 14). Pew Research Center - U.S. Politics & Policy. Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/03/01/the-generation-gap-in-american-politics/

Wootton, B. (1953, July). Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. By Karl Mannheim. Edited by Paul Kecskemeti. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1952. Price 25s.). Philosophy, 28(106), 278–279. https://doi.org/10.1017/s003181910005960x

Visual Sources

Deviant Art (2004). An Old Man with his Grandson. https://www.deviantart.com/adevin/art/an-old-man-with-his-grandson-114441827

Das Bunderarchiv. (1988). Berlin, Michael Jackson-Konzert, Wartende. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_B_145_Bild-F079012-0030,_Berlin,_Michael_Jackson-Konzert,_Wartende.jpg

istockphotock.com (2008). Intergenerational Relationships Can Transform Our Future. https://www.seniorlivingforesight.net/intergenerational-relationships-can-transform-our-future/%B8%99%E0%B8%B8%E0%B9%88%E0%B8%A1-gm173001259-7216226

Pierce, T. (2004). Child reading at Brookline Booksmith. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Child_reading_at_Brookline_Booksmith.jpg

Tréplica, D. (2022). Karl Mannheim. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Karl_Mannheim.jpg

Author Photo

Taylor Pace

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