The concept of generation is central to understanding migration; think of the idea of ‘the first generation’, ‘the second generation’ and so on. In this sense generation refers to migrants and their children, and often assumes that particular challenges are associated with each passing generation: The first generation are said to put up with harsh conditions and low pay in the expectation that their children, the second generation, will have better lives than they themselves do, and that their grandchildren, the third generation, will in turn be fully assimilated into the country of settlement. A voluminous body of literature associating itself with the assimilation paradigm, much of it based on US experiences, has tracked and documented the relative progress of migrant generations, in particular the second generation, which is seen as a kind of litmus test.

Notwithstanding the merits of this body of work, there are problems associated with it. As some scholars have noted, it has tended to assume that migrants will assimilate into a vaguely defined, white, middle-class mainstream, following the example of the Jewish, Irish, and Italian migrants to the US in the early 20th century. Today however, many migrant groups are instead absorbed into an increasingly multi-ethnic, non-white working or under class with few opportunities for upward mobility or even of legalizing their residence. Furthermore, the assimilation paradigm assumes that migrants and their offspring over time will relinquish all ties to their ancestral homeland. Instead, globalisation is enabling more migrants to continue to stay in touch with their homelands through remittances, skype and e-mails, telephone calls and text messages, and visits, including extended holidays for children. Some migrants move back and forth between home and host society without ever settling definitively in one or the other, or move between several different countries. This means that the idea of a neat, straight line toward full assimilation obscures more than it illuminates.

Some scholars have accordingly extended work on the second generation to include an appreciation of their continuing transnational identities and commitments, better suited to today’s migration dynamics and migrants’ border-crossing practices. Their work points to another problem with the conventional use of generation in migration scholarship, namely that of a missing or unacknowledged historical context. Could it be that the use of generation in assimilationist scholarship has erroneously understood the experiences of early 20th-century European immigrants and their descendants as generalizable experiences, when they might be more helpfully understood as particular experiences embedded in the specific historical context of early to mid-twentieth century America?

If this is the case, there are other definitions and meanings attached to generation in sociological and anthropological literature that can profitably be applied in a migration context (Kertzer, 1983). As well as genealogical descent, generation can also refer to cohorts, meaning a group of people who have experienced the same events at roughly the same point in their life course (most often during adolescence). An example would be the post-World War II cohort of ‘the baby-boomers’ in the west. A cohort understanding of generation can help us understand the ways in which pre-migration experiences may continue to influence migrants after they migrate. Thus, migrants who leave their homeland at a particular historical juncture and who arrive in a ‘host’ society at a particular historical moment, may adapt differently compared to those who leave the homeland and arrive in the country of settlement at a different point in time, even if both are ‘first generation’ in the conventional sense.

To give an example, Cubans who left the island for the US in the early 1960s shortly after the Cuban Revolution, and who were given generous US federal support in integrating into the US, have tended to hold strong anti-Castro views, to vote for the Republican Party, and to oppose remittance sending and homeland visits. By contrast, Cubans who left the island in the 1990s after the economic crisis sparked by the demise of the Soviet bloc, and who arrived in the US at a time when financial support programmes for Cuban migrants had been phased out, tend to hold more pragmatic views toward their homeland. They send more remittances than the earlier cohort, even though they are much poorer than them, and they visit Cuba to a degree unheard of among the earlier cohort. Similar differences can be seen among Cubans in Spain, with those who arrived in the 1960s tending to identify more with their peers in the US than with more recently arrived Cubans in Spain. Both cohorts are genealogically defined first generation migrants, yet their stances toward Cuba mean that their interests are often in direct conflict with one another, challenging the idea of migrants from the same country of origin being a cohesive group (Eckstein and Berg, forthcoming).

This cohort understanding of generation sees successive waves of migrants as diasporic generations (Berg, 2011) and situates migrants in their historical context, thereby enabling a better understanding of diversity within migrant groups, especially regarding inter-ethnic relations, host society adaptation and homeland engagement. This does not mean that the genealogical understanding of migrants is ‘wrong.’ In fact, it is a good example of a term that has travelled from the academic sphere into everyday usage, and many people who are descendants of migrants self-identify as the ‘second generation.’ Yet a historically grounded understanding of generation which takes pre-migration experiences and the homeland context into account can provide a richer understanding of migrants in historical context and help shed light on divisions and cleavages within migrant groups that the other approach leaves unexplained.


Berg, M. L. (2011) Diasporic Generation: Memory, Politics and Nation among Cubans in Spain, Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Eckstein, S. E. & Berg, M. L. (forthcoming) ‘The Diaspora Generational Divide: Cubans in the US and Spain’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

Kertzer, D. I. (1983) ‘Generation as a Sociological Problem’, Annual Review of Sociology, 9: 129-149.

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