Looking at the kids skillfully using tablets with the help of their small fingers, we understand that to surprise the/a younger generation will be more difficult each year.

Is the definite article the at its proper place here, since we are referring to the general concept of "younger generation"?

Or should one use a, since a new younger generation might arise each year?

Or would both choices work fine?

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    Suggestion: "... surprising the younger generation becomes more difficult each year". – A E Nov 28 '14 at 14:09

"The" younger generation would suit better, because we're not talking about "a" specific generation (one which will slowly get older). We're simply talking about the current younger generation at two different points in time (as opposed to the people who are in the younger generation now, compared to the opinion of those same people in 20 years)

Remember that a generation isn't a fixed group of people, it's just an approximate grouping of age groups. The current young generation won't become the next one up as a block, it's just that we stop counting individuals within that group over time, and new people come into the group.

In this case I'd consider "The younger generation" synonymous with the simpler "The young", which fits the original intent

  • "We're simply talking about the current younger generation" - are you sure about that? I'd understand the sentence in a way that the current younger generation serves just as an example, whereas the general rule expressed there could very well refer to the difference between any two generations, a younger one and an older one. – O. R. Mapper Nov 28 '14 at 12:58
  • If we take 20 years as a generation: The point is that we're comparing how surprised the 2014 under-20s are, with how suprised the 2034 under-20s will be. We are not comparing the 2034 under-20s with the 2034 30-40's, we are only ever talking about under-20's: ie "The younger generation" which is constantly the youngest people in society. The comparison is over time not between age groups – Jon Story Nov 28 '14 at 13:04
  • Ah, I see. I disagree, because I see it as a way to state how any older generation is easier to surprise than any younger generation - 2014 30-40s vs. 2014 under-20s, 2034 30-40s vs. 2034 under-20s, and just as well 2014 70-80s vs. 2014 under-60s. As I see, this has meanwhile been explained quite well in J.R.'s answer, so I don't need to address this point any further in comments to this answer. – O. R. Mapper Nov 28 '14 at 13:55
  • I'm giving my +1 to "the young"; including the word "generation" implies a specific set of people - for example, Millenials across different years/parts of their lives, and makes it a little harder to understand what the original intent is – Izkata Nov 28 '14 at 23:50

I would prefer the indefinite article, because the sentence is describing a trend that is expected to hold true from generation to generation.

Looking at the kids skillfully using tablets with the help of their small fingers, we understand that to surprise a younger generation will be more difficult each year.

That means that, thanks to technology, it was harder for my parents to surprise me than it was for my grandparents to surprise my parents, it was even harder for me to surprise my children, and it will be harder still for my children to surprise their kids. It's not referring to a specific generation, but a general truth that holds across generations.

That said, the difference is subtle. Either version would be regarded as both understandable and grammatically sound.

  • "A" sounds like we're talking about several different younger generations - eg 10-15 year olds, 5-10 year olds, to each other rather than comparing a generation-grouping (young people) over several time periods. The "younger generation" is a concept referring to young people, and is static. The people in it (the genration itself) change but "The younger generation" as a concept does not. Therefore "the" applies better" – Jon Story Nov 28 '14 at 13:09
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    "A younger generation" sounds like any younger generation would fit the pattern - e.g., grandparents find it harder to surprise their adult children. While this may be true, the sentence as a whole is talking about teenagers or younger, and "the younger generation" is a set phrase that implies that better. – cloudfeet Nov 28 '14 at 14:05
  • @cloudfeet - I think that's subject to interpretation. I don't see the sentence as a whole talking about today's teenagers and younger, because I think it's merely using today's teenagers as a concrete example of something that has been true for quite some time. Just my opinion, but I think my last paragraph sums it up best, and I think most readers wouldn't find either version jarring in the context of an article. 40 years ago, the author might have written: "Looking at the kids with their size C batteries, we understand that to surprise a younger generation will be more difficult each year." – J.R. Nov 29 '14 at 9:09

In American English, the colloquial phrase "the younger generation" refers to "those on the way to young adulthood". In the way it refers to a group, it's analogous to "the jet set". In neither case would one use "a". He may be "a jet-setter" but he's a member not of "a jet set" but of "the jet set".

P.S. Although one can certainly say something like "A younger generation of artists is attracting the attention of serious collectors." that is a different meaning of "younger generation" than is used in the question. In my example, "A younger generation" could refer to any of several generations younger than that of the artists whom serious collectors had been collecting. Here in the US that could mean "Gen X-ers" or "Millenials" when the collectors had been collecting the works of "Baby Boomers", say. But "the younger generation" (as it is used here in the US) specifically refers to those who are now, or soon will be, on the cusp of young adulthood. In other words, when grandpa says "the younger generation", pa knows that grandpa means his pubescent and teenage grandkids, not pa's own generation.

  • +1. I think this is the only correct answer on this page. – ruakh Nov 28 '14 at 20:10
  • @ruakh - I'm not so sure this is fully correct, though, or tells the entire story. After all, according to an aggressive ad campaign, Pepsi was the choice of a new generation. – J.R. Nov 29 '14 at 8:59
  • @J.R.: At the risk of stating the obvious: "new" and "younger" are different words. And obviously Pepsi couldn't call itself "the choice of the younger generation", because that's something an older person would say -- it would completely undercut the message. – ruakh Nov 29 '14 at 9:15
  • @ruakh - At the risk of stating the obvious, "to surprise the younger generation" sounds like something an older person would say, too. If the author is trying to sound like an older person, perhaps "the" is the best choice. – J.R. Nov 29 '14 at 9:28
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    @J.R.: Weird, OK. I mean, I agree that "younger generation" is not so established to make "a younger generation" impossible in general, but I find the sentence nonsensical with the literal sense of "a younger generation". I find that it only works with the quasi-idiomatic sense of "the younger generation". – ruakh Nov 29 '14 at 18:19

We're not referring to the general concept of a younger generation. We're referring to a specific, definite generation. Without more context I don't know whether we're talking about the generation of these skilled kids, who will be more difficult to surprise as they age and grow more sophisticated, or we're talking about the generation of kids at this age, who seem to gain an ever-growing set of skills by the time they enter the generation.

Whichever case it may be, the reference seems specific enough to require the definite article. It's "this younger generation", not "any younger generation", in question here.

There is a test that I find useful. I consider "the" to be a weakened form of "this", and "a" a weakened form of "one". If I can replace the article with the word "this" or "that", then "the" is an appropriate choice. If I can replace it with "one" or "any", then "a" is appropriate. On this basis,

  • to surprise any younger generation

doesn't work as well in this sentence as

  • to surprise this younger generation

My choice would be the definite article

....the younger generation will be more....

That's because you are addressing the generation in general. For such futuristic sentence, I'd prefer using the as in... The generation to come over A generation to come.

On the other hand, a generation works but it'd, I am afraid, restrict the use of generation as in general.

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