To me, the word, "Generation" has always been one of those fuzzy terms with an annoyingly slippery definition set.
I have a blood relative who was the very youngest child in a family of 13. The age difference between him and his oldest siblings is more than twenty years and some of them were actually married and had children of their own before he was even born. Therefore some of his nieces and nephews are actually older than he is. One nephew that he was especially close to when he was growing up is almost exactly his age, as they were both born in the same month of the same year.
A situation like this; where an uncle is the exact same age as his nephew can easily occur in very large families and makes you think about what exactly the term, "Generation" really means. Were these two men in the same generation? It all depends on how you look at it.
From the standpoint of age, they were. They were both born within twenty days of each other and under any other circumstances there would be absolutely no question that they were of the same generation.
But from the standpoint of descent, they are definitely not the same generation, since this man's father was his nephew's grandfather.
When you compare this man to his older brothers and sisters, the same thing occurs. Whether they're the same generation or not depends entirely upon how you look at it.
From the standpoint of descent, they are all the same generation, since they all had the same father and mother.
But if you pick a different type of event to define a generation, then they aren't necessarily in the same generation at all. For example, this man's two oldest brothers served in the Second World War and are referred to today as the "World War II generation." This man missed being in that generation because the war was over before he was born. He falls into the "Post war generation" along with his nephew.
The latest iteration in the series of JW interpretations of Matthew 24:34 which was explained in some detail at this summer's 2010 District Convention is based on this "Large family" phenomenon. The following quotes are a transcription from the final discourse at the 2010 convention: "Remain in the Secret Place of the Most High."
"Well a generation really consists of contemporaries and that means individuals who live at the same time and whose lives overlap. Now there's a key scripture to help us understand Matthew 24:34, keep your place there and go over to Exodus Chapter 1 verse 6:
Exodus Chapter 1 verse 6: Notice it says regarding Joseph: "Eventually Joseph died and also all his brothers and all that generation" Exodus 1:6, Let's read it on more time: "Eventually Joseph died and also all his brothers and all that generation" Now notice the word "Generation" occurs in this verse; How are we to understand it? Well it's interesting when it came to Joseph, ten of his brothers witnessed events before Joseph was born. Ten of his brothers witnessed events that Joseph never saw; before he was born. And we know that at least two of his brothers lived on after he died.
So although they were of various ages; perhaps lived at different times you notice it says in verse 6 all his brothers were still considered what? "All that generation." So that's where we get the concept of a generation being a group of contemporaries; the lives of ten [sic] of Joseph's brothers you see overlapped with his so that they are considered one generation. Well, by the same token, we can have a clearer understanding of Mathew 24:34 again go back to that...."
You can see that the JW's have chosen a situation similar to the one I gave above to define a generation. Jacob had a large family with twelve sons and an undisclosed number of daughters. But despite whatever disparity of age that existed between the very oldest and the youngest, they all would be in the same generation since they all had the same father.
There's been a lot of talk about this new interpretation being based solely on a simple overlap of lifespan. That is a gross oversimplification and untrue. By that reasoning, Joseph and his eleven brothers would have also been in Jacob's generation, and no such claim was made. The overlap of lives is only one side of the coin. Of equal importance is sharing a generation defining event together and both sides of the coin are required for a group to be considered the same generation. In the case of Joseph and his brothers, descent is obviously the generation defining event.
With that in mind, the secondary application of Matthew 24:34 was made thus:
"Well apparently this generation is composed or comprises two groups of anointed Christians who would be contemporaries whose lives would overlap just like the lives of those ten [sic] brothers of Joseph overlapped with his, constituting a generation. Well, who is in this first group of anointed ones? Well Jesus tells us that uh they would see the sign of his presence uh they would be on hand when the sign started in what year? 1914. They would be anointed at that time. And then there would be a later group of anointed who would come on the scene whose lives would overlap with this first group who saw the beginning of the sign. And Jesus said that they would not die off but would be on hand when the Great Tribulation would break out. This helps us to see that the length of the generation is limited. It is not open-ended.
Let's illustrate it this way. Brother F. W. France [sic] When was he born? 1893. When was he baptized? The year 1913. And our understanding then was your anointing occurred at the time of your baptism. So brother France [sic] was anointed in 1913; thus he would have been alive to discern the sign that started when? In 1914. He was, if you did your math, twenty [sic] years old. Now Brother France [sic] lived on to the year 1992, so obviously he's part of that first group. So, any present day anointed ones who were anointed before, let's say individuals like Brother France [sic] in that first group died off would be considered contemporaries of the first group. They would be part of that generation that would see the beginning of the Great Tribulation."
Members of the "Second group" would have to have been anointed before members of the first group died off because in this interpretation, anointing is the generation defining event. Not only must their lives overlap, but the event they share in common must overlap as well. The basic concept is a valid one, but I think the JW's have made an ad hoc application of it.
It's true that a generation can be a group of contemporaries who share a common, usually major experience together. The term, "Greatest Generation" (i.e. Those that grew up during the depression) is one common example today, but there are plenty of others.
Generation defining events must of necessity be fairly short in duration because the longer the event in question lasts, the less it could be said that the experience is unique to any one contemporaneous group of people.
For example, defining a generation using World War II as the event is a perfectly viable idea. World War II began on September 1st of 1939 with the invasion of Poland and ended on September 2nd of 1945 with the formal surrender of Japan. A very large and diverse group of people all experienced this event, since it only lasted six years
In contrast, defining a generation using the Renaissance as your event would run contrary to the basic meaning of the word, "Generation." The Renaissance spanned from roughly the 14th to the 17th centuries and therefore was not unique to any particular group of people that were in any way contemporaneous with each other.
Similarly, in JW theology, Christian anointing has been going on for nearly twenty centuries and is not by any stretch of the imagination unique to any one contemporaneous group of people. Now it's quite obvious that the speaker did not have all anointed Christians from the time of Pentecost on in mind, but what basis he had for selectively including some anointed Christians while excluding others was not at all clear and never openly stated.
In this regard, his choice of Frederick Franz was perhaps unfortunate because it makes it impossible to restrict the scope of anointed ones to only those who became such during the "Time of the end." The tightest category you could possibly draw that still includes Franz would be, "Anointed ones who live during some part of the time of the end." But that would be a problem in its own rite, because it would broaden the scope of anointed ones well beyond a contemporaneous group, to include people like C. T. Russell. Suggesting that such a group could be a single generation would be akin to suggesting that there was a generation of the Hundred Years War. Even though some lives within the group might overlap, that doesn’t render the group contemporaneous as a whole.
Therefore it's apparent that the reasoning presented at this summer's District Convention is entirely a definition of convenience. It's a viable concept applied in a completely arbitrary way without a word of explanation to justify such an application.
Any way you look at it, a "Sign" that drags out for 96 years (And counting) destroys any legitimate parallel with Matthew 24:34.