Culture, Life, Uncategorized

Measuring History: Change of Units, Change of Perspective

History is usually measured in years. But what if the passage of time is measured in a different way?

In this post I want to share a simple idea I found staggering when I first came across it. Instead of measuring history in years, what happens if it is measured in generations? On the surface it doesn’t sound like this will make much of a difference, but I found the result was a big surprise.

How long is a generation?

A generation is the time between someone being born and them going on to have children of their own.

In the UK in 2017, the average age of first-time mothers in the UK was 28.8, and the average age of women giving birth was a little over 30 (the second number is larger as it includes women having their second, third children etc.). The UK doesn’t keep statistics on the average age of first-time fathers, but the average age of the father of a newborn baby that year was 33.4. These numbers suggest at the present time a generation length of a little over thirty would be appropriate.

What about hundreds of years ago? The average ages in the last paragraph have all been going up for the last few decades due to changes in society, such as more women having careers in the workplace; an increase in university education leading to marriage and starting a family being delayed; and so on. So my initial thought was that a lower value for generation length would be appropriate in previous centuries – perhaps a value of 20 years.

I thought I would do a quick search on the internet to find out what values academic researchers use for generation length. This lead to an interesting article on the Ancestry website (if you don’t know it, Ancestry is a website that helps people find information on their ancestors and fill in their family tree). According to the article, several research projects by geneticists have found average generation lengths around the thirty mark for a range of cultures over recent centuries, with average male generation length a bit over thirty, and average female generation length a bit under thirty. The article also mentioned a study of a modern-day, stone-age-style tribe, which found figures of ~25 for women and ~35 for men: while the women started having children at a younger age than in the modern West, they kept having children for longer, so the average age at which women gave birth was still in their mid-twenties.

Putting history into generations

Overall, in most cultures an average generation length of 25-30 years seems appropriate.

What does history look like if considered in terms of generations rather than years? In the chart below, I’ve listed some important historical events, and given their dates and roughly how many generations back they occurred. There is one column for an average generation length of 30 years, and one for an unrealistically low value of 20 years (to show what kind of a difference a low value makes).

What I found amazing when I first came across this way of measuring is how few generations there are to get right back to ancient times. Henry VIII and the Reformation are only 17-20 generations back, The Battle of Hastings 32-40, and Jesus and the Romans 67-80. And the whole of recorded history fits into a petite 200-or-so.

To me, 2000 years sounds like a very long time, but 70 generations doesn’t sound like a lot. 2000 years gives the impression of slow, gradual change. But fitting everything that has happened since the time of the Romans into 70 generations makes each generation sound busy and jammed full of activity. Human history doesn’t sound that long at all.

What about trying a third unit of measurement – a “good old age”?

As far as I’m aware, no-one on my extended family tree has made it to the big 1-0-0, though some have come close. Life expectancy sky-rocketed over the twentieth century, but even today a figure of ninety-something is a good old age.

So what would we get if we were to measure the length of history in units of a modern “good old age”? Here’s what is to my mind an astonishing thought: someone who gets to the age of 90 has lived through and seen roughly one-sixtieth of the whole of recorded history. Wow. How crazy is that? One sixtieth! Recorded history is really not that long.

Final Thoughts

In a sense the units used to record time don’t matter. The same amount of time passes however it is counted. But I find that counting in generations or lifetimes gives a real sense of perspective. Historical people and events suddenly seem closer to the present, and more relevant to today.

Have you come across this before? If not, what do you think? Are there any other ways of measuring time that fascinate you? If so, do leave a comment below; I’d love to hear about them.


Welcome to the new Life and Lions blog!


Welcome to my new blog on my new website!

My name is Jonny. I’m in my mid-thirties and currently live in the town of Aylesbury in the UK.

I have interests in a wide variety of different things. I studied physics at university, where I became a Christian, so I am interested in both of those. I create art both using traditional media and digitally. I play computer games and board games. I enjoy gardening, and photographing the flowers, plants and bugs that live outside. I love light-hearted detective shows, science fiction, fantasy and (despite any previous denials) romantic comedies. Oh, and cryptic crosswords. In short, a whole lot of different things.

The fuel

Since finishing uni a decade ago, life has turned out nothing like I would have expected.

Here I am half-way through my thirties, still single, and living with mum. It is less than five years since my dad got diagnosed with cancer and, after a lengthy and unpleasant illness, sadly died. Do I have a traditional career path? No. I have, however, gained plenty of first-hand experience of social isolation and anxiety problems. For a couple of years I was badly agoraphobic, though that has now passed and we have since moved to Aylesbury, where there is much more for someone of my age and abilities to be involved with.

This is a long way from the “standard Christian narrative”. In this archetype you get a job in your early twenties, ideally a stable job-for-life in a middle-class profession – preferably something caring like a teacher or medic, though traditional careers like architect and engineer and so on are also acceptable. After a courtship that is sexless yet somehow also absurdly long, you marry a beautiful spouse in your mid-twenties and move in to a place filled with inspirational Bible quotes written on sunset or woodland backgrounds. By your thirties you have several beautiful kids. And then life is more or less set. You’re in an Instagrammable groove, heading for sending-the-kids-to-university and retirement, one hosted Bible study at a time.

There is nothing wrong with any of this. At all. Trouble is, my life looks nothing like that. At all.

The motivation

When expectation and reality collide there is friction, which is uncomfortable. But it is a great learning experience. I wouldn’t have chosen the last decade to take the path it has, but now that it has happened and I have had a chance to reflect, I think it has given me a fairly unique perspective on practical life as a Christian with a lively faith; on church culture; and on the relationship between the church and the wider world. And I think its the right moment to usefully start to share this angle.

At times I feel like a canary in a coal mine. The canary detects a problem, and alerts the miners to its presence. He serves to highlight to the miners an issue that is actually affecting the whole body of workers, but which is not easy for them to notice. This doesn’t make the bird better than the miners or vice versa – they are a team. The miners are needed to mine the coal, the bird to look after the miners, and the miners in turn feed the bird. They work together. (Okay, the analogy is a bit limited. If the bird does detect a problem he…. keels over dead after inhaling poisonous gases. Its only an analogy, I don’t intend to do that!)

The timing

So why start writing now? During my experience of social isolation, I became used to communicating with people mainly via the internet as most of the friends I had were hundreds of miles away. Using YouTube and tutorial sites I taught myself some computer graphics skills. I took up gaming, both online and on my own. I learnt something about using a greenscreen. In short, my social world became largely digitally-mediated.

Currently, we are in coronavirus lockdown throughout the country. This is a serious illness and a serious situation, and I wouldn’t want to trivialize it in any way. One consequence of the shutdown is that it has forced people online, helping many who were formerly resistant to overcome their reluctance – Christians and churches in particular. In a specific sense, and without intending to be flippant, it now feels like suddenly everyone is playing in my back yard (metaphorically of course!). They are in the digital world, where I am already fairly comfortable. As a result, socially I am more connected than before. This is a space I feel fairly comfortable operating in, I feel less alone, and that I can make a worthwhile contribution in a way that hasn’t previously been possible. Such as starting a blog.

Getting going

To start the blog and the website off, I am launching with three posts. This introduction is the first; the next two are

I hope you find these interesting and learning something from them, and stay with me for future posts,

Best wishes,