Ages, Life Stages, and Generational Cohorts: Decomposing the Immigrant First and Second Generations in the United States1


  • 1

    Revision of paper presented at the international conference on “Conceptual and Methodological Developments in the Study of International Migration,” Princeton University, May 23–24, 2003, sponsored by the Center for Migration and Development, Princeton University, in collaboration with the International Migration Review and the International Migration Program of the Social Science Research Council. I gratefully acknowledge the support provided to the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS) by research grants from the Russell Sage Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon, Spencer, and National Science Foundations, to Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut, Principal Investigators; and the research assistance of Charlie V. Morgan of the University of California, Irvine.


This article focuses on problems with the definition and empirical identification of immigrant “first” and “second” generations in the United States. These loosely conceived aggregates are decomposed into a typology of distinct generational cohorts defined by age and life stage at migration for the foreign born and by parental nativity for the U.S. born. Differences in educational and occupational attainment and in language and other aspects of acculturation are then examined to consider whether the practice of “lumping” these generational cohorts together, or “splitting” them into distinctive units of analysis, is empirically supported by available evidence. The paper concludes with some thoughts on data needs and methodological considerations in the study of immigrant generations.

“All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages …”

— William Shakespeare, “As You Like It,”Act II, Scene 7.