A Generation Petrified by Fear?
Era of Disasters Could Create Overprotective Parents, Conformist Children

September 24, 2005 | By Michele M. Melendez

Sudden devastation has shaped recent American life: the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Asian tsunami and, now, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Add to that widespread news of school shootings, child abductions and other crimes against children.

Generational scholars already are monitoring the nation’s very youngest, tracking how the country’s response to tragedy influences the next generation’s mind set.

These children won’t remember the events themselves, but they will inherit the outcomes: heightened airport security, metal detectors in schools, sex offender registries, disaster plans. The result might be overprotective parents and a conformist, risk-averse generation.

Call them the new Silent Generation, an echo of the conformists born during the 1930s.

“When things happen during your formative years, it develops generational characteristics that stay with you throughout a lifetime,” said Ann Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing in New Orleans, now temporarily based in New York.

Fishman calls kids ages four and younger Generation 9/11. Born with America’s recognition of a new era, they are being raised amid terrorist threats and the missing-children announcements known as Amber alerts.

Katrina, Fishman said, will give mothers and fathers another reason to shield their children—from natural disaster.

Elizabeth Reid, 35, of Durham, N.C., said she does worry about the state of the world and whether her 3-year-old son is “going to have the nice, middle-class existence that I grew up with. It’s hard to know how things are going to turn out.”

The challenge is keeping scary news in perspective. Child abduction by strangers is rare. So are hurricanes of Katrina’s and Rita’s force.

“I’m greatly concerned that young people will be too afraid of their shadows to actually do anything, including travel, (getting an) education or speaking their opinions,” said Rob Halgren, of Stockbridge, Mich., father of a 2-year-old daughter. “Hopefully I can teach my child to participate in all of these freely.”

William Strauss, co-founder of LifeCourse Associates, a consulting company in Great Falls, Va., sees a cyclical pattern to generational traits. The generation that dies out, in his view, is typically replaced with a like-minded group.

So the future generation would be akin to what Strauss calls the conformist Silent Generation. Now 63 to 80, the Silents quietly bridged the G.I. and baby boomer generations.

They came up between World War II and Vietnam. They married young. They filled the suburbs.

“You have these periods when there’s a major civic crisis that redefines civic life,” Strauss said, such as the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II.

Today, Americans are seeing “sparks of history,” events like Katrina that could potentially cause meaningful societal changes.

“Here the issue will be: What is our response to the sparks?” Strauss said.

The parents of the new generation—chiefly Generation X, people now in their mid-20s to early 40s—will be key.

Gen X is composed of children of divorce, latchkey kids, self-reliant cynics whose parents were fairly hands-off. Generational observers have charted X’s response to parenting: to correct their parents’ mistakes. They’re hands-on.

Katrina’s destruction will reinforce and perhaps intensify that tendency, said Chuck Underwood, founder and president of The Generational Imperative Inc., a consulting firm in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Events that parents perceive as life-changing will ripple toward their children, said David Stillman, co-founder of BridgeWorks, a generational consulting group.

For example, “ people who grew up 1938, 1940, it was post-Great Depression, but their parents lived through it,” imparting the notion of saving, said Stillman, based in Minneapolis.

William Draves, River Falls, Wis., co-author of “Nine Shift: Work, Life and Education in the 21st Century,” said Katrina would instill the value of adaptability. The storm forced families to leave their homes on a moment’s notice. Some are relocating all over the country to re-establish their lives.

“The kids being born now are going to be used to more flexibility in terms of time and place,” Draves said.

Whatever the degree, the reaction and response to today’s adversity likely will be far-reaching, observers say.

“I think this is going to be the beginning of shaping the next generation,” Stillman said. “Whoever they are.”