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Generational cohort theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Many studies have demonstrated that various traits, such as loyalty to organizations, vary across the generations. Some of these studies are cross sectional, however, examining different generations, such as Generation X and Baby Boomers, at the same time. Any differences across the generations, therefore, could be ascribed to age instead. Nevertheless, other studies have examined different generations at the same age--such as both Generation X and Generation Y during their late teens and early twenties. This research has also confirmed that anxiety, depression, and narcissism have increased over time (e.g., Twenge & Campbell, 2008).

Generational cohort theory explains these changes across generations (e.g., Edmunds & Turner, 2005; see also D'Amato & Herzfeldt, 2008). According to this theory, important historical events and social changes in society affect the values, attitudes, beliefs, and inclinations of individuals. These events might include traumatic episodes like wars, sizeable shifts in the distribution of resources, heroic figures such as Martin Luther King, or experiences like Woodstock that symbolize an ideology (Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, & Brown, 2007). Events that unfold during the formative rather than later years of individuals are especially consequential. Therefore, individuals born during a particular time, and thus corresponding to the same cohort, will often share specific inclinations and cognitive styles. Furthermore, these effects are assumed to persist over time (Jurkiewicz & Brown, 1998).

The main alternative to generational cohort theory is the assumption that values, attitudes, beliefs, and inclinations are primarily a function of age and maturity rather than generation. Generational cohort theory diverges from this perspective, arguing that changes across generations are primarily a function of social events rather than biological processes (Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, & Brown, 2007).

Definitions of the generations

Many studies have compared Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y. Some research has examined generations that follow Generation Y: called Generation Z, Generation alpha, or Homelanders. A few studies have examined generations that precede the Baby Boomers, including the silent generation.

The precise demarcation of each generation is contentious (see Strauss & Howe, 1991). In particular, how the generations are differentiated depends on which historical events researchers believe are most consequential. Accordingly, the precise demarcation should also vary across nations and cultures, because distinct regions are exposed to different events.

For example, D'Amato and Herzfeldt (2008) differentiated four distinct generations, born in Europe, between 1946 and 1971. Specifically, Early Boomers were born from 1946 to 1951. This generation was characterized by a negligible increase in birthrate across the region. Late Boomers were born from 1952 to 1959 and was characterized by a steadier increase in birthrate during this region. Early X generation was defined as individuals born between 1960 and 1970--the first generation exposed significantly to the global community and characterized by an increase in birthrate in Western but not Eastern Europe. Finally, Late X generation was defined as individuals born between 1971 and 1980, characterized by an increase in birthrate in Eastern but not Western Europe.

The dates that distinguish the generations in America differ marginally from the dates that distinguish generations in Europe. Americans born between 1909 and 1933 are sometimes referred to as WWIIers (e.g., Mitchell, 1998; Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, & Brown, 2007). The inclinations and values of these individuals were shaped by the Great Depression and then by Franklin Roosevelt.

Americans born between 1934 and 1945 are sometimes called Swingers or Silents (Mitchell, 1998; Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, & Brown, 2007). These individuals matured during a period of prosperity& because the population was smaller, competition to secure employment and progress to management was limited. They tended to be practical, loyal, diligent, and compliant (e.g., Patterson, 2005, cited in Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, & Brown, 2007). Kupperschmidt (2000) alludes to the term traditionalists to represent both WWIIers and Swingers.

Furthermore, many researchers, like Smola and Sutton (2002; see also Strauss & Howe, 1991), define Baby Boomers as individuals born between 1946 and 1964, although some earlier dates are sometimes proposed (see Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, & Brown, 2007). The inclinations and orientations of these individuals were shaped by the Vietnam war and civil rights, Watergate, the space race, the sexual revolution, and Woodstock. They became independent, striving to control their destiny and challenge authority (Mitchell, 1998), as well as felt entitled, expecting future rewards (Smola & Sutton, 2002). Nevertheless, they espouse teamwork, optimism, ambition, and diligence (Patterson, 2005, cited in Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, & Brown, 2007).

Researchers also define Generation X in America as individuals born between 1964 and 1980 (Smola & Sutton, 2002). MTV, AIDS, global competition, and the collapse of communism significantly shaped their perceptions. They were reared in a context of some insecurity and change, in both financial domains as well as family structure (Smola & Sutton, 2002). Diversity flourished, and thus traditions diminished (Smola & Sutton, 2002). Smaller enclaves formed to provide some stability (Karp, Sirias, & Arnold, 1999). The ambition and diligence that characterized their parents waned because of the increasing instability of jobs, eliciting cynicism (Kupperschmidt, 2000).

Finally, researchers define Generation Y as individuals roughly born between 1980 and perhaps 1999 (see Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, & Brown, 2007). These individuals are sometimes referred to as the net generation (e.g., Tapscott, 1998). Nevertheless, the precise dates vary across researchers. The perspectives of these individuals are significantly shaped by terrorism and 24 hour access to information (Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, & Brown, 2007).

Empirical evidence


Narcissism refers to a tendency in some individuals to exaggerate their competence and power, including their intelligence, attractiveness, and reputation (Brown & Zeigler-Hill, 2004), perceiving themselves as unique, special, and entitled to exclusive privileges, often becoming irate or anxious when this perception is challenged (Campbell, Bonacci, & Shelton, 2004). In general, studies reveal that narcissism is elevated in college students today relative to college students in previous decades (for a review, see Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Campbell, & Bushman, 2008), consistent with generational cohort theories.

To examine this issue, Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Campbell, and Bushman (2008) undertook a technique called cross-temporal meta-analysis. In particular, they examined scientific studies that have examined narcissism since the 1980s. These studies generally report the average values of narcissism for various age groups. These figures are then subjected to statistical analyses to ascertain whether average levels of narcissism seem to change over time in specific age groups, usually undergraduate students.

This analysis revealed that narcissism has indeed increased over time in specific age groups. To illustrate, the average college student in 2006 generated a higher level of narcissism than 65% of college students in the 1980s. They were more likely to endorse items like "I think I am a special person" and "I can live my life any way I want to" (for a review, see Twenge & Campbell, 2008).

Narcissism does coincide with some unfavorable behaviors and inclinations. According to Collins (2001), in his book "Good to great", the CEOs of great companies, compared to CEO of fair companies, were more likely to demonstrate humility rather than narcissism. In addition, they often seem inflexible in sales contexts (Soyer, Rovenpor, & Kopelman, 1999) as well as prejudiced in many contexts (Hodson, Hogg, & MacInnis, 2009). Narcissism is also one of the key determinants of aggressive, hostile, and defensive temperaments (Bushman & Baumeister, 1998).


Despite this narcissism, preliminary evidence indicates that depression might be elevated in younger, compared to older, generations. From 1987 to 1997, in America, the number of people treated for depression has tripled, rising from 1.8 million to 6.3 million (Twenge, 2006; Twenge & Campbell, 2008). In America, 1 to 2% of Americans born before 1915, and living during the Great Wars, experienced an episode of major depression (Twenge & Campbell, 2008). In the 1990s, one study showed that 21% of teens, aged between 15 and 17, had been diagnosed with major depression at some stage (Lewinsohn, Rohde, Seeley, & Fischer, 1993).

Depression significantly impairs the performance of companies. Each year, approximately 6% of American employees cannot work because of depression, representing US 30 billion in reduced productivity (Twenge & Campbell, 2008). This problem, however, has been shown to diminish in companies that offer a case manager to depressed employees (Wang, Simon, Avorn, Azocar, Ludman, McCulloch, Petukhova, & Kessler, 2007).


Levels of anxiety are also elevated in younger generations relative to previous generations. To illustrate, in college students, the average level of anxiety in the 1990s exceeded the 71st percentile in the 1970s (Twenge, 2000). This trend is even more pronounced in school children: The level of anxiety in child psychiatric patients during the 1950s approximated the average level of anxiety in the general population of children during the 1980s (Twenge, 2000).

Locus of control

Locus of control, as defined by Rotter (1966), also seems to vary across the generations (Twenge, Zhang, & Im, 2004). Individuals who adopt an internal locus of control ascribe events or outcomes to themselves& individuals who adopt an external locus of control ascribe events or outcomes to other people or fortuitous factors that cannot be controlled.

In general, younger generations, relative to previous generations, are more likely to ascribe events to external forces (Twenge, Zhang, & Im, 2004). They are, therefore, less inclined to assume responsibility. Their satisfaction, however, is especially sensitive to the support of managers (e.g., Chiu, Chien, Lin, & Hsiao, 2005).


Twenge, Gentile, DeWall, Ma, Lacefield, and Schurtz (2010) conducted two cross-temporal meta-analyses to examine whether responses to the MMPI--a test of a broad variety of psychopathologies--vary across generations. Specifically, one study examined responses on the MMPI and MMPI-2 in American college students, from 1938 to 2007. The second study examined responses on the MMPI-A in high school students, between 1951 and 2002.

Some key observations emerged. In particular, depression, hypomania, paranoia, psychopathic deviation, and other psychopathological manifestations has increased dramatically in recent generations, (Twenge, Gentile, DeWall, Ma, Lacefield, & Schurtz, 2010). These effects persist even after the distortion scales are controlled. Specifically, as Twenge, Gentile, DeWall, Ma, Lacefield, and Schurtz (2010) showed, relative to younger generations in previous decades, younger generations today exhibit:

Social desirability

Crowne and Marlowe (1960, 1964) developed a seminal scale to assess social desirability (see Crowne & Marlowe social desirability scale). Participants specify the extent to which they engage in various acts like "I like to gossip at times" or "I am always willing to admit when I make a mistake"--acts that are considered undesirable or desirable in society. Elevated scores indicate the person engages in acts that are deemed as desirable but abstains from acts that are deemed as undesirable.

These elevated scores could imply the respondents have inflated their qualities and underrated their flaws, representing a form of deliberate or inadvertent distortion. Alternatively, elevated scores could imply the respondents genuinely conform to all social norms.

In college students, mean levels of social desirability dissipated from 1950 to 1970 (Twenge & Im, 2007), and continued to diminish from 1970 to 1980, tending to plateau from that decade onwards (Twenge & Im, 2007). These findings might imply that younger generations are less inclined to distort their responses to questionnaires. Nevertheless, according to Twenge and Campbell (2008), these findings are instead consistent with the proposition that younger generations today are less inclined to seek social approval--or to engage in behaviors that comply with societal norms. Anecdotes about their casual attire, coupled with their inclination to embrace risks rather than conform to traditions, attests to this depiction (Twenge & Campbell, 2008).


Several studies indicate that loyalty and commitment to organizations has declined in recent generations. That is, younger generations do not predict the organization will maintain their services indefinitely. Obligation to remain employed at a company has diminished in younger generations today relative to younger generations in previous decades (Daboval, 1998, cited in D'Amato & Herzfeldt, 2008). Indeed, younger generations, born after 1960 for example, have often witnesses redundancies, including the retrenchment of their parents, evoking cynicism towards loyalty (Kupperschmidt, 2000).

Similarly, as Smola and Sutton (2002) maintain, individuals in Generation X, unlike individuals who are Baby Boomers, do not forge an emotional attachment to workplaces. Instead, they perceive the work environment as a means to fulfill their work and social goals. Indeed, relative to previous generations, individuals in Generation X seem to perceive work success as more important than social needs (Smola & Sutton, 2002). That is, they do not significantly value activities outside the work environment& instead, the work environment is perceived as an opportunity to fulfill most of their needs.

Because loyalty has diminished, and turnover is elevated, employees are not as sensitive to cues that symbolize trust. They do not subject themselves to contexts in which trust is necessary. Indeed, trust has become less important to younger generations (Putnam, 2000; Robinson & Jackson, 2001).


Some authors have claimed that Generation Y, sometimes called the Millennials, are more interested in civic participation and community affairs (e.g., Greenberg & Weber, 2008). This perspective is sometimes called Generation We. Yet, Twenge, Campbell, and Freeman (2012) showed that Generation Y is actually not as concerned about civic participation as other generations. This generation, instead, is focused on extrinsic values, such as money, image, and fame, rather than intrinsic values, such as community needs, relationships, self-acceptance, concern for others, and civic participation.

These insights were derived from an analysis of responses to two broad surveys, administered to senior high school students and first year university students respectively. In these surveys, participants are asked to rate the importance of various values, such as "Having a good marriage and family life".

To illustrate, compared to previous generations, Generation Y participants were not as likely to value "Developing a meaningful philosophy of life", "Keeping up to date with political affairs", "Becoming involved in programs to clean up the environment", "Participating in an organization like the Peace Corps", "Participating in a community action program", and "Helping to promote racial understanding". Instead, they were more likely to value "Being very well off financially", "Having administrative responsibility for the work of others", "Becoming a community leader", and "Influencing social values". A closer examination of these findings, together with a validation study, showed that such results indicate that, in general, Generation Y participants are not as inclined to value community, relationships, self-acceptance, civic participation, or the needs of other people than either Baby Boomers or, to a lesser extent, Generation X.


Materialism in older adolescents increased from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, plateauing but not diminishing from this time, as uncovered by Twenge and Kasser (2013). Specifically, between 1976 and 2007, Year 12 students completed a survey in which some of the items assessed materialism. These items revolved around the degree to which the students feel that material wealth is important, covet jobs that pay well, and desire expensive possessions. In general, at least between 1976 and around 1990, materialism steadily increased, yet work was perceived as less central to life during this time. After this time, materialism has been quite steady.

This level of materialism was associated with several societal indices. For example, unemployment, divorce rates, and suicide rates, all reflecting instability, were positively associated with materialism 5 to 10 years later. Likewise, the level of disconnection in society, manifesting as unmarried mothers or people living alone, was also associated with subsequent materialism. Finally, level of advertising was positively associated with subsequent materialism as well.

Leadership characteristics

Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, and Brown (2007), in a cross sectional study, showed the characteristics that individuals seek in their leaders--the attributes they admire--do vary across the generations, but not as dramatically as media commentators may sometimes imply. Indeed, all the generations valued leaders who were honest, helpful, attentive, and knowledgeable about the core activities of the company.

Nevertheless, some important variations across the generations were observed. For example, Generation Y, called the Millenials in this study, valued dedication and optimism to a greater extent than previous generations. These individuals did not value a strategic orientation or cultural sensitivity as appreciably as did previous generations (Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, & Brown, 2007).

Some of the preferred attributes did not vary monotonically with time. To illustrate, Late Boomers and members of Early Generation X were less likely to value listening than were both previous and later generations (Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, & Brown, 2007).

Actual behavior of leaders also varied across the generations, as demonstrated in a cross sectional study (Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, & Brown, 2007). Younger generations of leaders tend to demonstrate a more energetic style, striving to seek immediate improvements. Older generations of leaders demonstrate a more considered approach, invoking the skills of other individuals. These findings perhaps represent the increasing flux and change in modern organizations.

Mechanisms that explain some changes across generations

Job stability

In previous decades, employees expected lifetime employment. Since the collapse of the Bretton-Woods system in the 1970s, coupled with advances in communication technology, investors could more readily and rapidly shift their capital throughout the globe, seeking abrupt increases in share prices (Sassen, 1998). Furthermore, the share market became increasingly complex, enabling huge pension funds and merchant banks to dominate the market. The power of these investors soared& shareholders began to dictate the management of companies. These shareholders sought risky endeavors, to increase share prices, rather than progressive growth (Harrison, 1994). Companies, therefore, would shift their operations and activities, incessantly and unpredictably, to accommodate unforeseen changes and developments. To guarantee they could operate flexibly, turnover of employees escalated, causal staff were sought, and job stability diminished (for an excellent exposition of these changes, see Sennett, 2006).

To some extent, this trend has swept the globe, but is especially pronounced in the United States. In Europe, however, the social, rather than pure, market economy may have contained this volatility to some extent (D'Amato & Herzfeldt, 2008).

According to D'Amato and Herzfeldt (2008), flux and uncertainty might underpin a yearning to develop job skills. That is, this urge is intended to ensure that individuals can feel they will remain appreciated in a changing, dynamic, and uncertain world (e.g., Gabriel, 1999). In addition, because of this flux, individuals do not reflect upon the remote future, focusing more on immediate issues (e.g., Hamel & Prahalad, 1996).

As a consequence, the psychological contract of employees has changed. Baby Boomers offered loyalty and commitment to the company in exchange for job security and steady progress in their career opportunities and remuneration. Generation X individuals, however, offer mobility, adaptability, and personal responsibility for career development in exchange for challenging opportunities (D'Amato & Herzfeldt, 2008). As a consequence, this generation should exhibit a stronger orientation towards learning and development.

Consistent with these arguments, Generation X, relative to Baby Boomers, do show less loyalty to the organization. They were less likely to endorse items like "Do you see yourself in this organization in three years". Furthermore, Generation X, compared to Baby Boomers, exhibited a more pronounced learning orientation (see goal orientation), as represented by items like "It is important to learn on the job".

Extrinsic versus intrinsic goals

According to Twenge, Gentile, DeWall, Ma, Lacefield, and Schurtz (2010), many of the changes across generations might reflect a shift from intrinsic goals, such as meaning, community, and affiliation to more extrinsic goals, such as materialism and status. In particular, these researchers, as well as other scholars (Eckersley & Dear, 2002; Myers, 2000), allude to the culture of consumerism, individualism, and elevated expectations that pervade many societies. As a consequence of this culture, individuals seek products, like expensive cars, that do not necessarily fulfill their intrinsic needs, which can compromise wellbeing (see Self determination theory).

This theory can explain many of the recent characterizations of younger generations. Extrinsic goals tend to be correlated with narcissism (Kasser & Ryan, 1996)& narcissism has also become more prevalent in recent generations (Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Campbell, & Bushman, 2008).

Furthermore, evidence does indicate that younger generations today are not as motivated to pursue intrinsic goals than younger generations in previous decades. Involvement in community groups has dissipated since the 1960s (Putnam, 2000). Interest in government activities has waned (Twenge & Campbell, 2010). Intimacy in friendships has diminished& fewer people today feel they can confide in their closest friends (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Brashears, 2006).


According to Twenge and Kasser (2013), insecurity during childhood and adolescence can promote materialistic values, increasing the emphasis on extrinsic rather than intrinsic goals. That is, during previous decades, the rates of unemployment, divorce, loneliness, and other challenges have, at times, escalated. In the aftermath of these insecurities, individuals seek money and materials. Money instills a sense of resilience and control. Materials can also reinforce the self (see symbolic self-completion theory).

Twenge and Kasser (2013) uncovered results that confirm these findings. Divorce, unemployment, suicide rates, single mothers, and other challenges during the childhood or adolescence of individuals predicted materialism during the late teenage years.

Economic cycles

Some scholars maintain that economic cycles could also underpin some of the differences across generations. Certainly, economic hardship can obviously compromise access to resources, stability of roles, and level of crime, all of which can culminate in anxiety or depression (see Barlow, 1988). Nevertheless, according to According to Twenge, Gentile, DeWall, Ma, Lacefield, and Schurtz (2010), economic cycles do not predict the linear deterioration in wellbeing over time.

Response biases

According to Swindle, Heller, Pescosolido, and Kikuzawa (2000), some changes in mental wellbeing across generations could reflect variations in response biases. That is, mental illness might not be as stigmatized today as in previous eras. Participants might be more willing to concede anxiety, dejection, and other problems.

Nevertheless, this mechanism cannot explain all of the problems in younger generations today. Contrary to this model, younger generations today demonstrate more psychopathology than did younger generations in previous decades, even after the Lie and Correction scales of the MMPI were controlled.

Limitations with cross-temporal meta-analysis

To examine generational differences, most studies utilize cross-temporal meta-analysis. In particular, they derive the data from studies across the decades, in which the participants were typically university students. They can, therefore, examine whether responses to some measure, such as self-esteem, varies across the decades in people of a specific age.

Yet, cross-temporal meta-analysis, generally, confines the focus to a particular subset of the community: students of universities that conduct research and agree to participate. Perhaps, the profile of these students, instead of the values of individuals in general, has changed over the decades (cf., Trzesniewski & Donnellan, 2010).

To offset this problem, Twenge, Campbell, and Freeman (2012) applied another method that circumvents this problem. Specifically, they examined the data that is derived from broad, national surveys--surveys that have been conducted every year across many decades. Each of these surveys is administered to a representative sample of students across the nation.

One of the surveys, for example, called Monitoring the Future, has been administered each year, since 1975, to a representative sample of senior high school students. This survey prompts students to estimate the importance of 14 goals, such as finding purpose and meaning in life, being a leader in my community, living close to parents and relatives, being able to find steady work, making a contribution to society, being successful in my line of work, and so forth. Another survey, the American Freshman project, has been administered each year, since 1966, to a representative sample of first year university students. This survey also prompts students to estimate the importance of various goals.

As Twenge, Campbell, and Freeman (2012) showed, the responses to these surveys also varied across the generations. In general, Baby boomers are most likely, and Generation Y are least likely, to prioritize intrinsic values, such as community needs, relationships, and self-acceptance, over extrinsic values, such as money, image, and fame. Furthermore, Generation Y is the least inclined to engage in civic duties, such as environmental or political activities, and feel less concern for other people. Nevertheless, this generation does engage in community service more than other generations, but primarily because these activities are obligatory in many courses.

One potential concern of these national surveys is that none of the specific questions or sets of questions have been validated. To override this problem, a sample of students from one university completed these surveys, coupled with other measures of intrinsic values, extrinsic values, self-esteem, and narcissism. This procedure substantiated which of the items in the national surveys correspond to intrinsic values and which of the items in the national surveys correspond to extrinsic values.

Factors that moderate these differences across generations


In general, young generations have become increasingly individualistic over the decades, striving to differentiate themselves rather than conform to a collective. However, as Park, Twenge, and Greenfield (2014) showed, during the recession of 2008 and 2010, this trend reversed. That is, adolescents reported more collectivism during this period than during the previous interval.

Specifically, during 2008 to 2010, relative to 2006 to 2008, adolescents became more concerned about the needs of other people: They wanted to correct inequalities, seek a job that was worthwhile to society, reflect upon social problems, and reduce waste in food. In addition, they became more concerned about the environment as well as less materialistic& they were not as interested in purchasing a new car or holiday house in the future. Furthermore, as Park, Twenge, and Greenfield (2014) demonstrated, across the period from 1976 70 2010, these collectivist values were positively associated with indices of economic deprivation, such as unemployment.

These findings align to Greenfield's theory of social change and human development. According to this theory, the values of individuals adapt socio-demographic trends, such as increased urbanization, escalating wealth, and extensive formal education. For example, as the economy shifts from a focus on subsistence or survival to commerce, individuals become more individualistic& their concerns shift from supporting the community to personal wealth.


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Twenge, J. M., Gentile, B., DeWall, C., Ma, D., Lacefield, K., & Schurtz, D. R. (2010). Birth cohort increases in psychopathology among young Americans, 1938-2007: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the MMPI. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 145-154.

Twenge, J. M., & Im, C. (2007). Changes in the need for social approval, 1958-2001. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 171-189.

Twenge, J. M., & Kasser, T. (2013). Work centrality, 1976-2007: Associations with temporal changes in societal insecurity and materialistic role modeling. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 883-897. doi: 10.1177/0146167213484586

Twenge, J. M., Konrath, S., Foster, J. D., Campbell, W. K., & Bushman, B. J. (2008). Egos inflating over time: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the Narcissistic personality inventory. Journal of Personality, 76, 875-902.

Twenge, J. M., Zhang, L., & Im, C. (2004). It's beyond my control: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of increasing externality in locus of control, 1960-2002. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 308-319.

Wang, P. S., Simon, G. E., Avorn, J., Azocar, F., Ludman, E. J., McCulloch, J., Petukhova, M. Z., & Kessler, R. C. (2007). Telephone screening, outreach, and care management for depressed workers and impact on clinical and work productivity outcomes: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Association, 298, 1401-1411.

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