These Are The Top 10 Most Significant Events Of Americans’ Lifetimes

People’s lists vary wildly by age, race, and income–but one thing is clear: 9/11 changed everyone’s lives.

A new Pew Research survey asked U.S. citizens to name the 10 most significant events of their lifetimes. Overall, 9/11 comes top of the list, closely followed by the election of Barack Obama as president, the tech revolution, the JFK assassination, and the Vietnam War. Right there in the main list, you get an idea of the demographics of the respondents. Nobody born since the late 1980s will have cited the fall of the Berlin Wall or the end of the Cold War as significant.


But it’s when you break down the answers by demographic–age, ethnicity, income level–that the results get really interesting.

In the U.S., the terrorist attacks on 9/11 are an obvious candidate for the top spot. That day started a new kind of war that pitched the government against its own people, and everything changed. It’s also recent enough that all adults were alive when it happened, and all but one demographic said that 9/11 was the most significant even in their lifetime. For African-Americans (the Pew report lists “blacks,” whites,” and “Hispanics” as ethnic demographics), the Obama election just slipped in a few percentage points above 9/11 (62% vs. 58%).

Sticking with ethnicity, Hurricane Katrina only showed up on the list for Hispanic respondents (7%), as did the Orlando shooting (number three on the list). Gay marriage is nowhere to be seen in the black respondent’s top 10, whereas the MLK assassination doesn’t appear on either of the other two. Meanwhile, the moon landing and the end of the Cold War show up much higher on the white respondent’s list.

The survey groups people by age into the following generations: millennials (born 1981-1998), gen X (1965-1980), baby boomers (1946-1964), the silent generation (1928-1945), and the greatest generation (1901-1927). The results in these groups vary quite a bit. A millennial, for example, wouldn’t be able to pick the Vietnam War, or the assassinations of MLK and JFK, because they didn’t happen in their lifetimes.

Millennials, then, pick the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as important, with gay marriage coming in at number four, and the tech revolution at five. This generation also lists three mass shootings in its top 10: Orlando, Sandy Hook, and Columbine, along with the Boston marathon bombing. Interestingly, 7% of millennials mention the Great Recession, which doesn’t make the list of any of the older generations.

Gen X counts the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War as the most significant events (after 9/11 and the Obama election), the boomers rank JFK and Vietnam right after 9/11, and the silent generation puts WWII in its number two spot, below 9/11.


Splitting the result by U.S. region makes little difference. The middle of the tables move around a little, but overall they’re much the same. Breaking it down according to education and income, however, shows some interesting differences.

For instance, only those earning over $75,000 a year count the Challenger disaster as significant, and only those earning under $30,000 mention the Civil Rights movement. The tech revolution appears on all lists, but creeps higher up the table the more the respondents earn. Education-wise, the differences are smaller. Civil rights only feature on the list of college graduates, and those who only managed high school or less fail to mention the end of the Cold War at all.

Similarly, the male/female lists are pretty similar, including the exact same events in a similar order, with two exceptions: Men don’t mention gay marriage, and women don’t mention the Gulf War.

It’s a fascinating list, but breakdowns of further demographics would be even better. It’d be interesting to see how things differ according to religion, or to sexual orientation and gender identity. Also, how do recent immigrants view the history of the U.S.? But the real payoff will be in the future. If Pew continues to do this survey regularly, then seeing how the various demographics view unfolding events over time, and how their opinions change as they age will be truly thought-provoking.

[Photo: Robert Giroux/Getty Images]


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Previously found writing at, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.