9/11 proves to be defining moment for entire generation

October 1, 2006 | By Michele M. Melendez

Pearl Harbor stamped “the Greatest Generation,” the Kennedy assassination marked the baby boomers. Were the terrorist attacks five years ago such a moment for Generation Y?

As Sept. 11, 2001, nears another anniversary, America’s rising youth—together with the scholars and marketers who study them—are pondering its impact on attitudes and outlooks.

“Our first reaction was, ‘Why did this happen?’ “said Lauren Patrizi, 21, of Homewood, Ill. “We grew up in the cozy 1990s.”

They weren’t strangers to violence. The Oklahoma City bombing happened in 1995, the Columbine school shootings in 1999. But Sept. 11 felt different. It bred ever-tightening security at airports and national landmarks, even terrorism drills at school.

“I think it has made us more aware that there are terrorists in the world, and that the U.S. isn’t as beloved as we were taught in grade school,” said Jennifer Fox, 17, of Shoreline, Wash.

Scholars start Generation Y with children born in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. Some include today’s babies among them; others—acknowledging the day’s magnitude—start a new generation with Sept. 11.

Gen Y bears various titles, including Millennials (for the turn of the millennium), echo boomers (for their numbers—around 80 million by some counts, rivaling the baby boomers); and iGeneration (for the technology that marks the era, including Apple’s iconic iPod).

Whatever they’re called, these successors to the reportedly cynical Generation X have a reputation for civic-mindedness and optimism.

Now, said Ann Fishman, president of New Orleans-based Generational Targeted Marketing Corp., they “have enough confidence to believe that they will not only have good lives but they can reach out to other people…They will be the rebuilders (who will manage) the fallout from the attacks from terrorists.”

Patrizi sees that future.

“As we watched the planes hit the towers, all Americans’ lives were changed,” she said. “The only difference for our generation is that ours will have to make the largest sacrifices, whether it be in our physical military presence or quite honestly paying off the financial debt many considered to have been caused by the events following 9/11.”

Michael Lachky, 15, of Manteno, Ill., is already determined to serve. “I wanted to join the Marines before 9/11,” he said, “but 9/11 made me set my mind on it.”

He knows others don’t share his enthusiasm. “I ask friends of mine if they will join any branch of service after graduation, and they all tell me, ‘No,’ “Lachky said. “They are afraid of being sent into war. If 9/11 never happened, they might have joined.”

Some say the day and its aftermath put them face-to-face with something ugly, even in their own mirrors.

“I think it kind of made my generation racist,” said Laura Freeland, 18, of Cincinnati, “because we were angered that so many people died and didn’t want it to happen again.”

Sandi Copes, 22, of Tallahassee, Fla., said she hates the idea that profiling has “become borderline acceptable again.”

But she admits, “When I look at people in an airport, certain individuals make me nervous, and for no good reason other than they look like the people who carried out the attacks. I’m ashamed of my reaction, but at the same time I don’t want to be someone who ignored a red flag.”

While it is difficult to make clear connections between Sept. 11 and youth behavior, experts say volunteering, voting and news consumption all rose in the years since.

“Some combination of 9/11 and the ‘04 election did catch their attention,” said Peter Levine, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement.

Zachary Cottrell, 17, of Maple Valley, Wash., said he never watched the news before the attacks.

“I was a cartoon guy,” he said. “But 9/11 opened my eyes to the suffering in the world. I wanted to watch the news to learn and one day maybe...make our country better and learn from history.”

Still, some youth say their elders—especially those in the news media—place too much emphasis on Sept. 11.

Ben Losaw, 23, of Lenox Dale, Mass., is tired of hearing politicians, commentators, even terrorists, tell him how he should feel about the day.

“I just wish they’d give up and let my generation live our own lives,” he said. “The hippies really defined their life, although we have to have terrorists define ours.”

Ben Casnocha, 18, of San Francisco, said Sept. 11 has had little lasting impact on his generation beyond inconvenience at airports: “On a day-to-day basis, if you didn’t have someone who you knew who got killed on that day, I don’t think it affects us as much as something like emerging technologies or other things.”

Many factors—age, geographic location, relationships with those killed—influence the range of youth responses to Sept. 11.

“For an adolescent whose developmental goals include building an identity and planning for the future, the attacks certainly shaped their view of the world,” said Donna Gaffney, associate professor of nursing at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., and advisory board member of Families of September 11 in New York.

“But how do we separate 9/11 from all of the other events that have occurred in its wake: anthrax, war, terrorist alerts, etc.?”

William Strauss, co-author of “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation,” says Sept. 11’s influence will become sharper as Gen Y ages.

“After we pass another five years and start seeing the Millennials writing their songs, making their movies, writing op-ed columns, doing things more openly with public purpose,” said Strauss, of McLean, Va., “we’ll have a better sense of what any one event or all of these events together have meant to them.”