Skip to navigationSkip to content
TOP 10

The most defining moments in America, as ranked by each generation

The "Tribute in Lights" shines on the skyline of lower Manhattan as the sixth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center is observed in New York, September 11, 2007. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn (UNITED STATES)
Gary Hershorn / Reuters
Our collective memory.
  • Michael J. Coren
By Michael J. Coren

Climate reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

Historic events come to define our national identity. But do we all agree on what’s important?

Pew asked 2,025  Americans from each generation to name the 10 events in their lifetime with “the greatest impact” on the country. The answers reveal a world newly redefined by the rise of domestic and foreign terrorism, and the transformative role of technology and civil rights.

Everyone agreed on one thing. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, stood out as the most important event, cutting across age, race, and political party. Roughly three-quarters (76%) of all respondents included the terror attacks in their top 10, and the events of that day were seen as the most defining overall for each generation, even ranking ahead of World War II for the Silent Generation (born between 1901 and 1927). The next closest contender was Barack Obama’s election to the White House, which 40% of the public named as one of their top events. (It shared the top spot among the survey’s black respondents.)

Selections were limited to events in each respondent’s lifetime. Younger generations’ rankings were dominated by school shootings, bombings, and wars in the Middle East (roughly half of the events). The brighter spots focused on digital technology, gay marriage, and Obama’s election. Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation picked the US civil rights movement, the end of the Cold War, the Vietnam war, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King as the most impactful events in their lifetimes.

You can see all the responses below. The survey was conducted from June to July in 2016 in association with A+E Networks’ HISTORY.

Millennials (born between 1981 – 1998)

Historic event% ranking in top 10
Sept. 1186%
Obama election47%
Iraq/Afghanistan wars24%
Gay marriage19%
The tech revolution18%
Orlando shooting17%
Hurricane Katrina11%
Columbine shooting10%
Bin Laden10%
Sandy Hook7%
Boston Marathon bombing7%
Great Recession7%

GenX (1965 – 1980)

Historic event% ranking in top 10
Sept. 1179%
Obama election40%
Fall of Berlin Wall / End of Cold War21%
The tech revolution20%
Iraq/Afghanistan wars18%
Gulf War15%
Challenger disaster14%
Gay marriage10%
Hurricane Katrina10%
Columbine shooting9%
Orlando shooting9%
Oklahoma City bombing9%

Baby boomers (1946 – 1964)

Historic event% ranking in top 10
Sept. 1170%
JFK assassination45%
Vietnam war41%
Obama election38%
Moon landing35%
The tech revolution26%
Civil rights movement18%
Fall of Berlin Wall / Cold War16%
MLK assassination15%
Iraq/Afghanistan wars11%

Silent and Greatest Generations (1901 – 1945)

Historic event% ranking in top 10
Sept. 1159%
WWII44%
JFK assassination41%
Vietnam war37%
Moon landing29%
Obama election28%
The tech revolution27%
Civil rights movement18%
Korean War18%
Iraq/Afghanistan wars14%

Correction: A previous version of this post failed to note that Pew combined survey results from the the Silent and Greatest Generations. This has been corrected above. 

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.