Denseman on the Rattis

Formerly known as the Widmann Blog


Recent history?

The Berlin Wall was opened twenty years ago today.

Phyllis and I started talking about how it to us is something we remember clearly, but to Marcel (born 1997) it is just an event from the history books, just like WWII.

That reminded me of a discussion I had with my mum once, during which she claimed that WWII was important and recent history, unlike WWI that happened many years ago. I then pointed out that I was born 27 years after the end of WWII, while she born just 25 years after the end of WWI. That shut her up! 🙂

To formalise this a bit, I guess you can split the past into the following periods: (1) Your own memories, typically starting from around age 10 (my first political memory is Poul Schlüter becoming prime minister of Denmark in 1982). (2) Recent history, the stuff that your siblings and friends might remember, so starting perhaps five years before you were born. (3) Your parent generation’s memories, that is, the stuff your parents and teachers remember. (4) Your grandparents’ generation’s memories, basically the stuff older people remember. Anything that happened before then is only known to you from books, or from somebody saying that they remember their grandparents telling them something, i.e., hearsay rather than own experiences.

To make this concrete, I’ve calculated this for various birth years. To keep this simple and general, I’ve put the generational gap at 30 years. This is obviously not always true, given that it can be anything between 16 and 44, but it’s much easier than trying to figure out when your grandmother’s first political memory was.

  • Born in 2009 (e.g., the baby girl inside Phyllis): Recent history 2004-2009, parent generation’s memories 1989-2003, grandparent generation’s memories 1959-88, ancient history until 1958. That makes the creation of the EEC ancient history.
  • Born in 1997 (e.g., Marcel): Own memories 2007-2009, recent history 1992-2006, parent generation’s memories 1977-91, grandparent generation’s memories 1947-76, ancient history until 1946. That makes WWII ancient history.
  • Born in 1972 (e.g., me): Own memories 1982-2009, recent history 1967-81, parent generation’s memories 1952-66, grandparent generation’s memories 1922-51, ancient history until 1921. That makes WWI ancient history.
  • Born in 1940 (e.g., my dad): Own memories 1950-2009, recent history 1935-49, parent generation’s memories 1920-34, grandparent generation’s memories 1890-1919, ancient history until 1889. That means the creation of Esperanto and the French-Prussian War were ancient history.
  • Born in 1899 (e.g., my paternal grandmother): Own memories from 1909, recent history 1894-1908, parent generation’s memories 1879-93, grandparent generation’s memories 1849-78, ancient history until 1848. That makes the Revolutions of 1848 ancient history.

4 thoughts on “Recent history?

  • “the creation of Esperanto and the French-Prussian War…”

    Ah, good to see a linguist’s-eye view of the major events of world history there ;-]

  • Actually, a generation can be anything from (with early puberty these days) about 10 to 90 (oldest confirmed father). My mother was born when her dad was 60 (very sweet story, actually, remind me to tell it someday). But 30 is the usual number.

    I still think of WWII as important and recent history, but then I’m somewhat of a WWII buff.

  • Of course WWII is important history, and for our generation, it’s not what I called “ancient history” here. You could argue my labels are wrong, and I should have called it “non-recent history” instead.
    My point is that for Marcel’s generation, WWII is ancient history, because they’ll probably never speak to anybody who participated in one form or another.

  • Hmm, just a quick point: a “generation” is not the time between a parent and the first child! It is the _average_ time between parent and child. For humans, the last couple of K years that is probably not far from 30. Going back on the human lineage it is probably around 20-30 years. There’s a drop around the time of the invention of agriculture where the time between successive children drops dramatically, but that increases again these days…

    Not at all relevant for the post, of course, but pretty important in genetics 🙂


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