If you want to understand millennials, don’t look at our reliance on technology, our narcissistic tendencies, or our ever-growing anxiety. Look no farther than that demarcation line that birthed who we are today. Define us by what shaped every aspect of our coming of age.
Define us by 9/11.
Every single 20-something today has been affected by that September day, 12 not-so-long years ago. At the oldest we were 18 in 2001, burgeoning on adulthood and stripped of our safety nets in a few short hours. We were of prime age to enlist for the upcoming wars and to see our names among the dead. At the youngest we were eight years old, huddling in classrooms, unable to understand the frightened whispers of our teachers, the horror in our parents eyes, or how to grasp the death of 3,000 people. We were children for whom Mesopotamia was no longer a page in our history books, but a place where our country was invading. We learned what hate and misunderstanding were from both afar and in our own backyards; that the invincibility of our nation could be breached before our very eyes, and through the naive eyes of children we discovered how very frightening the world could be.
We are an anxious generation, always worried about the future because we were taught to fear it from a very young age. Terror scares have been splashed across our screens, coded yellow and orange depending on what unmarked package was left in front of which important building. Our bags have been scanned, our bodies frisked, our faces profiled, and our time confiscated to protect us. As the NSA leaks have been reported over the last few months, our generation has turned a blind eye toward it, less concerned about Big Brother watching us than our parents. It’s not because of apathy, but rather a statement on how we have been monitored most of our lives. We’ve grown-up under the Patriot Act, so of course we don’t mind Google sharing our information—it’s never been ours in the first place.
We have been at war for most of our lives and are simultaneously weary of it and jaded by it. Whether we were of age to join the wars or watch obliquely on the news, it has gone on for nearly as long as our parents experienced Vietnam. Afghanistan and Iraq have been a constant background to our lives—a blurb on the TV; images of flag-draped coffins aboard C-130s; a rallying point for politicians. All were ongoing events that seemingly didn’t touch us, but have inadvertently shaped our world perspectives, our politics, and our economic futures for the rest of our lives.
It’s little wonder that the possibility of military action in Syria has us generationally torn. We see online the images of rebels our own age dying in the streets, trying to change the fate of an oppressed nation, and we want to stand beside them, to help them live a life outside of death and fear. Yet the idea of entering into another era of military action on the other side of the world leaves us asking selfish questions: Can we afford this when our economy is still in the tank and we can’t afford our student loans, when we’re underemployed and likely will be for the rest of our lives? We do find ourselves thinking about me, me, me. But on a day like today, when we remember our own dying, can we afford to put a price on another nation’s lives?
That’s a question that will haunt us forever.
We want to be idealistic; we want optimism of brighter days that we did not see as we grew up. It is of no wonder that our generation unilaterally elected President Obama, a man who ran on hope and change, of promises of a new day and a better, less fearful future, who vowed that it will get better and that war would be over. Yet here we stand again, fearful of a new day and inured to the inevitability of war.
If we find ourselves clinging to our parents, wary of what the world will throw at us next, and overly in constant contact with one another, again, it is of little surprise. Twelve years ago, cell service crashed on the East Coast. Families were spread across the region, no one knew what would happen next or where it would occur. News of biological attacks ran rampant, schools locked their doors, and the nation shut down. Afterward, school policies on cell phones changed; a strict embargo was lifted in case of emergencies. Drills were put into place, and ever-worried parents sheltered their children even more. Where once you would have assumed safety, now we presume the worst, and when radio silence looms, we panic, constantly wondering, “What if?”
So you want to know who we are?
We are the war-weary and indebted, the jaded and the idealistic, the ones tired of a broken system.
We are the ones who will carry the burden of debts of war on our back.
We are the children who grew up in a nation fearful of the world around us.
We are the young adults on the brink of college, changing our life projections to answer the call of our nation.
We are the crying and confused teenagers who wandered the halls of their high schools as we watched the world change around us.
We are the 9/11 generation.