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Americans Name the Top Historic Events of Their Lifetimes

If you had to look back and name the 10 historic events that had the biggest influence on the country during your lifetime, what would you say? That was the question posed in a recent Pew Research Center survey, conducted in association with A+E Networks’ HISTORY.

The survey, conducted June 16 to July 4, 2016, asked everyone from Millennials to members of the Greatest Generation to list the events that most profoundly affected America. Looking at history through the prism of their vastly different lifespans produced a range of responses. There also are differences in views across racial and ethnic groups, with the election of Barack Obama and the civil rights movement featuring particularly prominently in the lives of black Americans.

For most Americans 9/11 was the most significant event in their lifetime, even for the Silent/Greatest generations who mentioned it more often than WWII. Among the most commonly cited were wars and tragic events including several mass shootings and acts of terror. Many mentioned pivot points in foreign affairs and domestic social movements, as well as key scientific advancements of the 20th century. (View all 24 events)

All generations overwhelming noted 9/11 as the most significant event of their lifetimes. Millennials and those in Gen X cited Barack Obama’s election second-most often. Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation named the JFK assassination and WWII, respectively, as their most important events behind only 9/11.

Those events named by 5% or more of the sample

*Category includes mentions of the internet, computers, cell phones, smartphones and social media.

Note: Shown are the top ten events mentioned, including numerical ties. While events are ranked numerically for ease of reading, not all differences between ranked events are statistically significant. Look to accompanying text to highlight significant differences. Source: Survey conducted June 16-July 4, 2016.“Americans Name the Ten Most Significant Historic Events of their Lifetimes”

Source: Survey conducted June 16-July 4, 2016.“Americans Name the Ten Most Significant Historic Events of their Lifetimes”

The Most-Cited Events

Ranked by percentage of overall responses. Due to ties, 11 events appear on this list.

Sept. 11

(Photo by Robert Giroux/Getty Images)

Americans unanimously agree that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were a hugely influential historical event. Indeed, three-quarters (76%) of U.S. adults list the event as one of the 10 most important of their lifetimes. It’s also the only event on the top 10 list to be mentioned by a majority of participants across all demographic groups. While Sept. 11 is the most frequently named event in all generations, Millennials and Gen Xers are particularly likely to name the terrorist attack, at 86% and 79%, respectively.

Obama election/presidency

(Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)
(Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)

The election and presidency of Barack Obama, the country’s first black president, is the second most common response, cited by 40% of Americans overall. Along with Sept. 11, it is also the most-cited historical event (62%) among blacks, who are much more likely than whites (36%) to name Obama’s presidency as historically important. Millennials also are particularly likely to name the Obama election and presidency – 47% do so, more than any other generation.

 

The tech revolution

(Photo by Louis Liotta/New York Post Archives / (c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)
(Photo by Louis Liotta/New York Post Archives / (c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)

About one-in-five (22%) participants list some aspect of technological advance as one of the most influential events of their lives. This includes changes ushered in by the internet and social media, cellphones (and smartphones) and innovations in computer and digital technology.

The tech revolution is especially likely to be named by older generations, for whom these products are particularly notable. About a quarter (26%) of Baby Boomers name the tech revolution in the top 10, along with 27% of those in the Silent Generation.  Millennials (18%) and those in Generation X (20%) are somewhat less likely to name the tech revolution, likely because they are more accustomed to these tech advances.

 

JFK assassination

(Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
(Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, is named by 21% of Americans. Notably, it is named by 45% of Baby Boomers and 41% of the Silent and Greatest generations.

 

Vietnam War

(Photo via Getty Images)
(Photo by Getty Images)

The Vietnam War (1954-1975), noted by 20% of Americans, was another event that particularly resonated with older generations. Fully 41% of Baby Boomers and 37% of those in the Silent and Greatest generations list the war in their top 10. It did not make the top 10 list for those in Generation X, a significant portion of whom were children during the war years.

 

Moon landing

(Public domain)

The barrier-breaking Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 ranks highest among Baby Boomers (35%), followed by 29% of those in the Silent and Greatest generations. The momentous event does not register significantly with those in Generation X, most of whom were not alive when Neil Armstrong took “one small step” onto the moon’s surface.

 

Iraq/Afghanistan wars

(Photo by Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Mentions of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were analyzed together; overall 17% of Americans rank them in their top 10. The wars are named most frequently by the youngest generations, topped by about one-quarter (24%) of Millennials. They rank lower on the list for both Baby Boomers (11%) and those in the Silent and Greatest generations (14%).

 

Berlin Wall falls/end of Cold War

(Photo by Tom Stoddart/Getty Images)
(Photo by Tom Stoddart/Getty Images)

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and 1990s is cited by 13% of Americans, although Gen Xers (21%) cite it more frequently. It fails to register in the top 10 with Millennials, despite the fact that some in this generation were born as early as 1980. Among those in the Silent and Greatest generations, it is supplanted in the top 10 by other events, including World War II and the Korean War.

 

Gay marriage

(Photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
(Photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The policy debate surrounding gay marriage gathered momentum in the last decade, culminating with the Supreme Court’s decision last year to legalize same-sex unions.  This topic had a strong impact on Millennials, with 19% choosing it as one of the top 10 events in their lifetimes. That’s about twice the share of those in Generation X (10%) – the only other age group to name gay marriage issues in its top 10. Overall, gay marriage topics were mentioned by 11% of Americans.

 

Orlando/Pulse shooting

 (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

This survey was conducted from June 16 to July 4, 2016, just days after the deadly shooting inside Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. Perhaps in part as a result of the event’s immediacy, as well as its prominence as the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, one-in-ten respondents named this as one of their top 10 events. This includes 17% of all Millennials and 9% of Gen Xers.

Gulf War

(Photo by Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
(Photo by Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

The Gulf War wraps up the list of top  events, with 10% of Americans naming the conflict. It owes its spot on the list in large part to the share of Generation Xers (15%) who named it as one of the most significant events in their lifetimes. In fact, Generation X is the only generation to name the Gulf War as one of its top 10 lifetime events.

For more information, see the full report.