Big history: Generational history

I propose to present our history in chunks rather than (or in addition to) on an AD/BC time line

Jonny Axelsson
6 min readAug 16, 2020

Learning history means learning a lot of dates. It is time consuming and error-prone, especially for those of us who don’t learn it as our profession. We need to know if A happens before, during, or after B, and if it is just before (or after), or long before. As we get to know a particular period well that timeline might fill up and make sense, but it will take years and the rest of history will still be fuzzy.

So I propose to chunk our time into more understandable units, and the natural one is the generation. Arbitrarily I have set a generation to 30 years, 6 generations into an age, 6 ages into an epoch, 6 epochs into a period.

My generations

Generation: 30-ish years. This is roughly the time it takes for a change to happen, going from idea to ubiquity, assuming no significant opposition or delay. We will get through 2–3 of those generations in our life.

Age: 180-ish years, 6 generations. This is roughly the time span from the childhood of your parents to the death of your children, assuming all live a full life. This is our life horizon.

Epoch: 1080-ish years, 36 generations. This roughly maps to the ages as imagined by Renaissance Europeans: the Classical (West Roman and Greek), Middle, and New age. The first two spanned around a millennium, and the third presumably will, in time. We’re halfway there already.

Period: 6480-ish years or 216 generations. This is a longer time span than most of us are comfortable with, but it would divide modern humanity into two periods, Younger Dryas to Egyptian dynasties, and Egyptian dynasties to the medium future (at current, this period would end in the year 3370).

The first period would have all the important innovations, like farming, domestication of animals, metalworking, and pottery, but the timing of events would be vague, and generations would be of little use.

Alternatively the 6–6–6 scheme could be abandoned for e.g. 4 epochs in a period. The interval from the Younger Dryas to the future would then be divided in three periods of 4320 years (144 generations). If we picked a point near the end of the Younger Dryas our period would be from the late bronze age collapse to the year 3200 (picking the beginning would have that period end in 2010).

The names used for groupings of generations (age/epoch/period) is taken from geological time scale, and are just placeholders.

First draft of a generational history

Spreadsheet: Timeline of history

To connect the dates I added some dynasties across Eurasia, may add some more hooks eventually.

Timing of generation and ages

The 30 year generation and 6–6–6 are arbitrary, but they could be conveniently arbitrary. If one generation had 29 years and another 32 to fit global events, it wouldn’t necessarily harm. Likewise if an age had 5 generations while another had 7.

But that is a discussion for later.

Naming of generations and ages

Something is easier to remember if it has a name, even if a name is misleading. Names, just like the end points of generations, are arbitrary. In principle the names might be something like Alice and Bob, but hooks help.

1990–2020 would be the mobile phone generation, while 1961–1989 was the Three Worlds generation (First, Second, Third generation, conflating the Cold War with decolonisation).

In numerical terms they would be Gen 170 (169) or 5:5:3 (5:5:2).

Alternative scheme: Decimal generations

The numbers 30 and 6 don’t play nice with decimal numbers. This can be seen as a bug or a feature.

While 30 doesn’t play nice, 25 does. What about age? It is supposed to be “longest living memory”. Assume that you, your mother and grandmother all live to be 100 years old, and give birth at the age of 40. Grandma is born in year 0, ma in year 40 and you in year 80. You will have 20 years to absorb everything granny said and pass it on before you die in the year 180. It’s a stretch in the age before ICU, but if you didn’t die of other causes you could well live to be a centennial. 40 wouldn’t be the average age of birth, but the youngest child might well be born at that age.

So how many decimal generations in a decimal age? 6, 7, or 8? If keeping 6, 150 years for “longest living memory” would not be a stretch at all, 7 generations or 175 years would be closest to the original value, while 8 or 200 years would be as decimal as it goes. Since the motivation is numerical convenience, 8 would be the natural number. But it would be highly unlikely that something from the beginning of the age would be passed on to the end by a direct source.

Epoch on the other hand is easy. Having gone all this way for a 200 year age, 5 ages will make a millennium, or epoch. And we are back to periods of 1060-ish years.

How many epoch in a period? 4, 5, 6, 10? Remember our period should start when things get exciting and end a convenient chunk of years into the future. But if we stick to a decimal grid, we should truly stick to it. Always 25 years in a generation (beginning 1 January for max convenience), 8 generations in an age, 5 ages in an epoch, and X epochs in a period.

In the spreadsheet I put the first exciting thing to happen the unification of the two Egypts and the beginning of the Old Kingdom. As we all know that happened at midnight 1 January, 3110 BC. If later Egyptologists come to the conclusion that it happened at some other time, that would be inconvenient. For the Egyptologists studying the early Old Kingdom.

Religious historians seem to think that Christ was born 4 years before Christ, and if that is good enough for Jesus, that’s good enough for Egyptologists. Anyway.

Epoch 1: 3110 BC – 2111 BC
Epoch 2: 2110 BC – 1111 BC
Epoch 3: 1110 BC – 111 BC
Epoch 4: 110 BC – 891 AD
Epoch 5: 892 AD – 1891 AD
Epoch 6: 1892 AD – 2891 AD

So six epochs are necessary and probably sufficient, but there is no not to go fully decimal and go for 10 epochs. There is also a good reason for 10 epoch. The Younger Dryas is exciting, and with 10 epoch periods, the previous period will start at 13100 BC, covering all that excitement.

The epoch boundary is fairly recent, and that can be a bit inconvenient. The Victorian age would start in one epoch and ends in another. But we got to have boundaries, and the new epoch would start with the founding of Liverpool Football Club (and Sparta Praha). That’s good a beginning as any, I suppose.

As for generations:
6:1:1 (gen241) 1892 – 1916
6:1:2 (gen242) 1917 – 1941
6:1:3 (gen243) 1942 – 1966
6:1:4 (gen244) 1967 – 1991
6:1:5 (gen245) 1992 – 2016
6:1:6 (gen246) 2017 – 2041
6:1:7 (gen247) 2042 – 2066
6:1:8 (gen248) 2067 – 2091

Maybe Menes ought to subjugate Lower Egypt three years earlier.

The digital benefit

First, it is easier to match a generational counting to a more conventional time line. Four generations ago is a century ago, five ages ago is a millennium ago.

Second, and more convincing to my mind, fractional generations are easier to represent. A year would be .04 generations, a season 0.01 generations, while two generations would be .25 ages.

So right now (March 2021) we would be in the 246.16th generation. A month from now that would be the 246.17th. Of course a notation like 6:1:6:5 for 2021 or 6:1:6:5:3 for March 2021 would also work, decimal or no, but 246.16 is both easier to relate to and to put on a time line.