In a documentary film on the Russian Revolution the narrator used the phrase "within a generation", and I'm not exactly sure what it means.

Socialism promised peace, prosperity, and equality for all peoples of the world. But the social experiment failed. Millions were killed, and within a generation almost one third of the world's population was living in the shadow of communism.

I wanted to check a few figures about how many people lived under communism, but the phrase "within a generation" left me wondering at what period I should be checking populations figures. Generally I've had the habit of considering roughly 20 years for a generation. In some dictionaries and other sources it says a generation for humans is about 30 years. It also mentions this on Wikipedia.

2.the term of years, about 30 among human beings, accepted as the average period between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring.
Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary

Anyway, in terms of that particular use of "generation", couldn't "within a generation" mean something closer to a person's average lifetime, say, 50, 60 or 70 years? The reason I'm wondering this is because, for example, say a group of people are born in 1960. Couldn't you say the 9/11 terrorist attack occurred within those people's generation? Even if they were 41 years old at the time it happened, and also notwithstanding that by that time another younger generation had been born?

Is that a reasonable use of "within someone's generation"?

Even if we take 30 years to mean a generation, the narrator's statement would mean that by about 1947 nearly a third of the world's population lived under communism. This just doesn't seem right. In 1947 the world's population was about 2.5 billion. One third of that is about 830 million. But we can't even include China (roughly with a population of 500 million), because it didn't become communist until 1949. Similarly the British Empire and/or India (it doesn't matter because independent India was never communist anyway) had a population of over 500 million, and when you consider the other most populous countries that were never communist this figure of "almost one third" really doesn't sound right. That is, of course, unless "within a generation" can be understood to mean what I mentioned earlier, roughly a group of people's lifetime, meaning it can extend to 40, 50, or 60 years. In that case I can imagine China's population explosion, along with other communist revolutions just maybe might bring it to the "nearly one third" measure used in the film.

  • 2
    32 years (1917-1949) is "about 30"
    – user662852
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 14:52
  • 1
    No, "a generation" (as a time period) means what you say, 20 or 30 years. If you want to say "lifetime", you should say "lifetime". I believe the issue with the original quote is that the author wanted to emphasize their statement, by way of exaggeration.
    – Mr Lister
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 14:52
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    The author purposefully uses weasel words to not use actual numbers. That includes within a generation but also almost and one third and in the shadow. And communism, for that matter. I believe you're overanalyzing it. The whole point here is that even the author himself doesn't know what the hell he's on about, and so neither should the reader. It is not supposed to withstand any kind or degree of analysis. Note how the second sentence directly contradicts the third, and the third directly contradicts itself. It's just faffing about, is all it is.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 14:52
  • @RegDwigнt I agree, it's ambiguous as hell, either intentionally or not. By the way, I don't really see contradiction in that quote. I basically see it as 1. People were promised a kind of utopia through means of a revolution. 2. The revolution failed to deliver on its promises. 3. Lots of people were killed and many of those left lived under communism. Are you saying that because many people lived under communism the social experiment succeeded?
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 9:22

2 Answers 2


So, for this question you need to consider the different media and the applications of language.

In your analysis you're trying to interpret it in a scientific application, and boil the word "generation" to precise numbers as if it were written media (papers, journals, etc.).

In the documentary (original source) the author is using jornalistic language, mostly sticking to the common meaning of the word and being deliberately vague to create a more emotional effect. If there was any intent of being precise, they'd have used the actual numbers - instead of a generation, they'd have said 32 years, from 1917 to 1949.

Please note that there is indeed a difference between "a generation" and "a lifetime".

A generation is used to express the average time between the birth of a population mass and the birth of this population's offspring, so that's about 20-30 years. You often see this when you see articles about the cultural differences between the so-called "baby boomers", "generation X", "Millenials" and "generation Z", which are 4 populational groups separated by roughly 20-30 years in age. Another application of the common meaning of "generation" is when you're talking about ancestry when you have migratory movements - e.g. "I'm a second-generation Japanese" when referring to having Japanese ancestry when not being born in Japan.

On the other hand, "a lifetime" is a person or a population's lifespan, and it can span multiple generations, since people now live enough to have grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

  • So in other words to say "A reality TV personality was elected president within my generation", that would only be acceptable if the person were born roughly after 1986? Once you reach for example about 40 years of age it's not appropriate to say "within my generation"? It's interesting because most baby boomers saw the 9/11 attacks, yet they were at minimum 37 years of age. Their generation witnessed and lived the event, but it's not right to say it happened "within their generation"?
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 9:08
  • That's because that's not the best use of "generation". In that context, you should really say "A reality TV personality was elected president within my lifetime", or "I lived enough to see a reality TV personality get elected for president". Usually the only context that "generation" is equal to "lifetime" is when you don't expect something to be done within your lifetime and say "this is for the next generation to think about" Commented Aug 4, 2019 at 18:02

Using "within a generation" is not just about expressing a number of years. It would be easy to say "within 30 years."

The words are also saying, "This change happened by the time people born on this day were having children of their own."

It is something that impacted society, and it did not happen slowly across multiple generations.

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