Opinion: What are the 10 most historic events in your lifetime?

Think about the greatest impact on the country
Posted at 3:52 PM, Dec 28, 2016

The transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump certainly feels like a historic moment, historically awful for some and positive for others. If it is any comfort, an interesting new study suggests that Americans have more in common in how they view the past than the present.

The Pew Research Center and A+E Network’s “HISTORY” teamed up to ask over 2,000 Americans this question: “Please name the 10 historic events that occurred in YOUR lifetime that have had the greatest impact on the country.” They sorted the results by generation because, obviously, different generations lived through different events.

The big headline was that Americans of all generations named the attacks of September 11, 2001, as the most important event of their lifetime by far. This was true even of older people who lived through World War II and the Vietnam War. There wasn’t much variation by age, gender, region or political leanings. African-Americans did put Obama’s election at the top.

Historians certainly could marshal many arguments that 9/11 was not, in fact, the most consequential episode in history for the Silent Generation (born 1928 to 1945) and Baby Boomers (1946-1964). But something about 9/11 puts it at the top of historical memories for all generations.

Nothing else comes close. The only other events listed by all generations were the election of Obama and the “tech revolution.”

This is the top 10 list for Millennials (1981 to 1998):

  1. 9/11
  2. Obama election
  3. Iraq/Afghanistan wars
  4. Gay marriage
  5. The tech revolution
  6. Orlando shooting
  7. Hurricane Katrina
  8. Columbine shooting
  9. Death of Bin Laden
  10. Sandy Hook

It’s a sad list for the most part. Millennials tend to see Obama’s election and gay marriage as positive historic moments; the tech revolution, for sure. It is especially disturbing, though not at all surprising, to see three mass shootings so prominent in the historical memory of young people.

Generation X (1965 to 1980) produced a similar list but they remember “the Fall of Berlin Wall/end of Cold War” and rank it third, according to the poll. Here’s the Gen X top 10:

  1. 9/11
  2. Obama election
  3. Fall of Berlin Wall/end of Cold War
  4. The tech revolution
  5. Iraq/Afghanistan wars
  6. Gulf War
  7. Challenger disaster
  8. Gay marriage
  9. Hurricane Katrina
  10. Columbine shooting

There’s a big jump, obviously, to the Baby Boomer list:

  1. 9/11
  2. JFK assassination
  3. Vietnam War
  4. Obama election
  5. Moon landing
  6. The tech revolution
  7. Civil Rights movement
  8. Fall of Berlin Wall/end of Cold War
  9. MLK assassination
  10. Iraq/Afghanistan wars

I’m a boomer whether I like it or not, and I would put Vietnam on the top of my list, no doubt. And I would have ranked the civil rights movement second — as both a triumph and a tragedy. I would have put Watergate on my list and perhaps the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1967 and 1973. I hope I don’t have to add Donald Trump’s election to my list in 10 years.

Finally, here is the list of the Silent Generation:

  1. 9/11
  2. WWII
  3. JFK assassination
  4. Vietnam War
  5. Moon landing
  6. Obama election
  7. The tech revolution
  8. Civil rights movement
  9. Korean War
  10. Iraq/Afghanistan wars

I find it surprising that the civil rights movement wasn’t higher on the list and even more surprising that the Cold War — or the end of it — didn’t make the list at all.

More of the items on the Millennials and Generation X lists were very time-limited, headline “news events” that saturated TV for a period: 9/11, Orlando, Hurricane Katrina, Columbine, Bin Laden’s execution, Sandy Hook and the Challenger. This might be a function of age, but it could also involve how the news media and our consumption of it have changed.

It is also interesting to see that as the world has grown small and more connected, global events aren’t more prominent on young people’s historical radars. The war on terrorism, the Arab Spring or the drug wars didn’t make any lists.

Mostly what struck me was how similar perceptions of historical events were across generations and our other demographic dividing lines. Obviously, all Americans don’t view these events the same way. But after a year like 2016 and an election like this one, I’m inclined to start the New Year looking for as much common ground as I can.