Generations, Values, and Giving

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Economic Impact
Financial Resources
Greatest Generation (The)
There are major generation groups defined by years of birth. These generations share general characteristics that react to world events and in response to previous generational traits. These generational trends may impact employment, giving, and social interaction.

Authored by Mary Slenski


Millennials, Gen X, Baby Boomers, Silents, and the Greatest Generation are the names of the living generations used freely in media and conversation.  Understanding the basics of generational theory has the potential of providing insight into a person’s or a group’s core values.  Those core values are the foundation for decisions throughout life, and are, thus, a wellspring of philanthropic activity.  This briefing paper offers background on generational theory and the values of the living generations as one tool for building bridges of understanding including motivations for philanthropic activity and strengthening relationships across generations.

In general, “a Generation (sic) is a cohort-group whose length approximates the span of a phase of life and whose boundaries are fixed by peer personality.” (Strauss & Howe 1991, 60) Phases of life may be described as Youth, a time of dependence; the Rising Adulthood years of activity; Mid-life, a time of leadership; and Elderhood, a time of mentoring and passing on values.  Each generation has a peer personality which “is essentially a caricature of its prototypical members.  It is, in its attributes, a distinctly personlike creation. A generation has collective attitudes about family life, sex roles, institutions, politics, religion, lifestyle, and the future.”  (Strauss & Howe 1991, 63)   Generational cohorts are shaped by the times in which they live.  Events occur.  Things happen.  Each generation has a unique context.  Some differences are enduring.  Others are a function of age or life-stage. (Pew 2015)

Defining the Generations:  The approximate birth years of the five living generations, using the dates suggested by the Pew Research Center, are:

  1. Greatest     - Before 1928
  2. Silents     - 1928 - 1945
  3. Baby Boomer  - 1946 - 1964
  4. Generation X - 1965 - 1980
  5. Millennials  - After 1980

Different generational scholars will vary the start and stop dates by a year or two.  Someone born on the cusp of one generation may identify with the peer personality of either or both generations they straddle.  It is more valuable to consider the events that define each cohort.  Also, it is important to note that the theory applies to the American context.  Immigrant experience will be different.  First generation children who are schooled in this country will then be formed by the American context of those school years. It is in the classroom that a student may engage others of different races and ethnicities than in their own household.   Scholarly consensus on the end date of the Millennial generation and the start of the post-Millennial cohort, sometimes called Generation Z, has not yet emerged.

Historic Roots:  The concept of a generation is as old as the Iliad of Homer and the Book of Exodus from the Bible.  Generational Theory is a newly defined area of study introduced in 1991 with the publication of Generations:  The History of America’s Future 1584-2069 by William Strauss and Neil Howe.  These authors narrate, in their analysis of those centuries of American history, a “recurring dynamic of generational behavior that seems to determine how and when we participate as individuals in social change—or social upheaval.”  They detail the characteristics of “what we call the ‘peer personality’ of your generation.  You may share many of these attributes, some of them, or almost none of them.  Every generation includes all kinds of people.  Yet, as we explain…you and your peers share the same ‘age location’ in history, and your generation’s collective mind-set cannot help but influence you—whether you agree with it or spend a lifetime battling against it.” (Strauss & Howe 1991, 8-9) One could describe the viewpoint Strauss and Howe have taken as birds-eye view of a great whole community where each member is unique and yet is influenced by the dynamics of the larger community.  Since their work emerged, generational theory has been across many academic disciplines providing bridges of insight into generational behavior.  



The importance and utility of the theory are summed up in the Pew Center statement that, “Unique demographic profiles of the generations are unlikely to change a great deal over time and often underlie opinion dynamics on issues.” (Pew 2015, 9) Chuck Underwood, in The Generational Imperative: Understanding Generational Differences in the Workplace, Marketplace and Living Room, describes three truths about generational dynamics that link the sociology to values; and therefore, to giving.

  • Truth #1:  During our youth, we will “form most of the core values and beliefs we’ll embrace our entire lives.  What we witness and directly experience as we pass through our formative years, and what we learn from older generations of parents and educators will guide our basic belief system for life.” (Underwood 2007, 29) A generational cohort shares the same core values shaped by the times and teaching absorbed during youth.  

  • Truth #2: “For the first time in history, life expectancy permits five living generations across society.” (Underwood 2007, 29) This means that households, workplaces, religious institutions, nonprofits, will have a greater diversity of generational value systems in place as they seek to live and work together.  The potential for conflict increases as does the potential for personal enrichment and creative solutions to shared problems.

  • Truth #3: The world view and values formed by their common age location in history influence each cohort’s decisions for the rest of their lives in the workplace, in the marketplace, in their relationships, and their giving.  (Underwood 2007) A working knowledge of generational values provides an opportunity to build relationships based on understanding rather than frustrated by difference.

A review of the American experience will bring significant events to mind.  Members of the Greatest Generation, who are in their 90’s at the time of this writing, may significantly recall that WWI, the founding of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight shaped their youth.  As their children were in the classroom, those who would become the Silent Generation, the Great Depression shaped struggles, required sacrifices, and built community.  This Greatest Generation would remember that WWII, with the reality of nuclear weaponry, brought more sacrifice, global engagement, and triumph.  

As soon as WWII ended, a baby boom ensued along with an extended period of economic prosperity, hence the Baby Boomers.  The tide was rising of multiple social revolutions e.g. civil rights and sexuality, and Viet Nam.  Americans could reach for space!  Organizations and institutions were strong. Suburbs sprawled with station wagons in driveways. Boomers were raised to be idealistic.  (Underwood 2007) This generation that followed the death and destruction of two world wars and are now the strongest givers to youth and family causes.  (IU Center for Philanthropy 2008)  

Generation X is the smallest generation.  Boomer women had far more options than ever before in the workplace, in their personal lives because of women’s rights advancements and in their reproductive lives.  Traditional family structures were challenged by divorce and an increasingly mobile society.  In the classroom, students realized that an increasing number of their classmates no longer had both birth parents in their households.  For many of this generation, a symbol of school years was a ‘latchkey’ which was a house key on a cord around their necks to let themselves in after school to stay by themselves until a parent came home from work. The computer moved into the home. Generation X became self-sufficient, independent, self-reliant free-agents.

The Millennials are considered “the most adult-supervised kids in American history.”  (Underwood 2007, 241) In addition to the close attention of parents, their relationships are shaped by the connectivity of the Internet. The tragedy of 9/11 and mass shootings in schools shape their sense of safety and engagement in the world.  


Ties to Philanthropic Sector

Demographics and phase of life may seem to explain generational philanthropic patterns.  At least one study undertaken by the IU Center on Philanthropy has shown that it’s not so clear. A representative study suggests that “Before using statistical methods of controls, there are observable differences in charitable giving that are linked to age or generation.” (IU Center for Philanthropy 2008, 3) After controlling for factors such as income, education level, frequency of religious attendance, marital status, and number and ages of children in the household, the propensity to give is less variable across generations with the biggest differences in giving to religious purposes.  The only statistically significant difference in giving for secular causes is that Silents are more likely to give.  (IU Center for Philanthropy 2008)  

Looking forward, both fundraising and volunteering are influenced by generational as well as personal values. For example, different generations have differing levels of trust of institutions due to early formative experiences of institutions either serving well or failing.  Since trust plays an important role in giving, awareness of “Differing decision-making approaches can help a nonprofit determine what types of fundraising initiatives will be most effective.”  (Sobel & Co. 2014, no page.)   In addition, a generation’s core values provide insight into how one might recruit volunteers.  One can look across an issue such as hunger and find opportunities for engagement that are in synch with their values.  For example, Gen X may be more likely to support local community garden initiatives.  A Silent may support a food pantry run by their church, synagogue or mosque.  Millennials “care more about giving to charities in order to make the world a better place to live and less about knowing how their money is being spent.” (Campbell & Company 2008, 30)

More generally, there are motivations shared across generations that do provide insight into giving.  Sobel & Co. note in their work that “[I]t is worth noting that the top choices among all the generations of givers are social service charities, places of worship and health organizations—even though the amount and type of support varies by generation.”  (Sobel & Co. 2014, 5)


Key Related Ideas

Storytelling:  Intergenerational storytelling is a profound way to share values whether the stories shared are from the same phase of life or about how someone from a different generation perceived the same event.

Target marketing:  Marketing seeks to target the most likely consumer for its product by focusing its message to the needs, wants, and values of that most likely consumer.  For example, if the Disney Company wants to encourage grand-parents to bring their grandchildren to one of their parks, their ads will remind Boomers or Silents how much they enjoyed their experience with a Disney park when they were young and show images of sharing that experience inter-generationally to plant the idea.  An exploration of popular advertising campaigns can offering a great deal of insight into generational values.


Important People

William Strauss (1947-2007) was an author, historian, and former congressional counsel.  Neil Howe (b. 1951) is a writer, economist, demographer, and research director.  Together, they developed the social history theory of generations and generational cycles of American history.

The most important people for understanding generations, values and giving are the people in our lives, the elders, our peers, and those coming after us whether they are blood relations, neighbors, teachers, or those to whom we relate in the marketplace and the workplace.  Their stories are the lenses into the values that shape their giving behavior.


Related Nonprofit Organizations

Many community foundations and charitable foundations offer resources to help families articulate their values and passions and then develop a charitable giving plan that reflects those values. Examples:  Greater Cincinnati Community Foundation

GenerationON  provides programs and resources that support the development of caring, compassionate and capable kids and teens through service, empowering them to become changemakers in their communities and the world.  


Related Websites

For a clear and concise summary of giving characteristics of the generations in an accessible format:

For publicly available findings, whitepapers and infographics from generational research focused on Millennials and post-Millennials:  Center for Generational Kinetics.

For a simple process to identify charitable priorities that could be easily adapted for the classroom:


Reflection Question

Identify an experience that is shared by the students in the classroom such as an event in the local community or in some broader context.  What feelings and values are or were expressed in responding to that event?  Consider how those feelings and values can generate ideas and energy for an age-appropriate giving project.  



  • “Generational Differences in Charitable Giving and Motivations for Giving.”  The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and Campbell & Company. May 2008.  
  • Hartnett, Bridget and Ron Matan.  NFP Fall 2014 White paper: “Generational Differences in Philanthropic Giving.”  Sobel & Co., LLC. Nonprofit and Social Services Group.
  • Strauss, William and Neil Howe. Generations:  The History of America’s Future 1584-2069. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1991.
  • Underwood, Chuck. The Generational Imperative:  Understanding Generational Differences in the Workplace, Marketplace and Living Room.  North Charleston, SC: BookSurge, LLC, 2007.
  • Pew Research Center. September 2015. “The Whys and Hows of Generations Research.”  Accessed November 27, 2016.

This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.