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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.
TOP 10

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

By Michael J. Coren

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. 11 86%
Obama election 47%
Iraq/Afghanistan wars 24%
Gay marriage 19%
The tech revolution 18%
Orlando shooting 17%
Hurricane Katrina 11%
Columbine shooting 10%
Bin Laden 10%
Sandy Hook 7%
Boston Marathon bombing 7%
Great Recession 7%

GenX (1965 – 1980)

Historic event % ranking in top 10
Sept. 11 79%
Obama election 40%
Fall of Berlin Wall / End of Cold War 21%
The tech revolution 20%
Iraq/Afghanistan wars 18%
Gulf War 15%
Challenger disaster 14%
Gay marriage 10%
Hurricane Katrina 10%
Columbine shooting 9%
Orlando shooting 9%
Oklahoma City bombing 9%

Baby boomers (1946 – 1964)

Historic event % ranking in top 10
Sept. 11 70%
JFK assassination 45%
Vietnam war 41%
Obama election 38%
Moon landing 35%
The tech revolution 26%
Civil rights movement 18%
Fall of Berlin Wall / Cold War 16%
MLK assassination 15%
Iraq/Afghanistan wars 11%

Silent and Greatest Generations (1901 – 1945)

Historic event % ranking in top 10
Sept. 11 59%
WWII 44%
JFK assassination 41%
Vietnam war 37%
Moon landing 29%
Obama election 28%
The tech revolution 27%
Civil rights movement 18%
Korean War 18%
Iraq/Afghanistan wars 14%

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.