In his ground-breaking 2008 book, The Way We’ll Be, my brother John used decades of polling to observe and define the values and worldviews unique to cohorts of Americans. He argued that their life experiences shared with contemporaries – defining events and traumatic moments – shaped their views, values and sense of possibility.
My mother’s generation, for example, was shaped by the two World Wars and the Great Depression. Knowing hardship and loss, they scrimped and saved to achieve security and stability for themselves and their offspring. The shared sacrifices of the great wars also fuelled a patriotic fervour, a belief in government as a constructive change agent, and a commitment to national service.
My generation lived through the Cold War and the ‘Red scare’. Hiding under our school desks in regular drills to practise for nuclear attacks provided no protection, but created fear both of ‘the bomb’ and the Communists we were told might attack us.
Then the Vietnam War and the draft compelled millions of young men to fight an unwinnable war. The resulting anti-war movement divided the nation and shattered the Cold War notion of ‘patriotism’.
Simultaneously, the civil rights movement was rising, bringing not only advances in rights for Black Americans but also a growing awareness of racial injustice. Finally, my generation was rocked by the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King, and the demise of President Nixon. The collective trauma of these momentous events left the country in shock and ultimately challenged the dominant political and social culture that had held sway for a generation.
My children came of age during a period that began with relative calm, as the Cold War ended with the sense that America was the victorious sole superpower. There were problems to be sure. Partisan politics became bitter. Economic disparities grew and racial injustices continued to boil. But, for nearly a decade and a half, many lived with a renewed sense of promise and hope.
This calm was shattered by the terror attacks of 9/11 and the fear and national hysteria that followed. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq exacted a steep price in lost lives, innocence and prestige. Trying to recreate the patriotic fervour that sustained national unity during the great wars and the Cold War, the Bush administration elevated Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, and Iran as existential threats. As the wars dragged on, it became clear that we were no longer the singular superpower. Cynicism and division replaced patriotism.
Then the great recession of 2008-2009. In just a few months, unemployment doubled, many lost their life’s savings, and one in five homeowners faced foreclosure. During this moment of national angst, Barack Obama was elected president with a message of hope and change. What followed was a divisive campaign with subtle and not-so-subtle themes of racial resentment and “otherness,” giving way to deeper partisan polarisation, xenophobia, a decline in public confidence for once revered institutions, and ultimately the election of Donald Trump.
With this backdrop, one wonders about the moments and events that will shape and/or scar the lives of our grandchildren.
My granddaughter’s classmate recently boasted that during an ‘active shooter drill’ he had secured the ‘best hiding place’ – where he would never be found by a gunman. Children now accept these drills as routine, and why wouldn’t they – with mass shootings occurring almost daily and an average of two school shootings each month. Add to this, the deepening racial divide, and the mass movements that erupted in response to wanton police and vigilante violence.
Enter Covid-19. Normal life has been disrupted for the past two years. Children, at different stages of development, were denied needed social interaction — not to speak of its impact on their learning.
Finally, there is the partisan anger, the weaponisation of the hatred of ‘others’, and the Trump era’s vulgarity and residual effects on our political and social culture.
These era-shaping developments will have a far-reaching effect on the generation that is coming of age in the third decade of this new century. How they play out and whether, in this context, it will be possible to recreate a sense of national purpose and unity remains to be seen.