Gen Y shaped, not stopped, by tragedy

April 17, 2007 | By Sharon Jayson, Maria Puente

The Millennial Generation has every right to be the Melancholy Generation, and the wonder is that it’s not. In fact, the trauma this generation has witnessed may make its members more resilient, according to those who have studied them.

Millennials—also known as Gen Y—are typically described as those born since the early 80s. And the signposts on this generation’s road to maturity have been a somber directory of tragedy shared. The Oklahoma City bombing. Columbine. September 11. The space shuttle disasters. Hurricane Katrina. And now Virginia Tech.

Previous generations of young people have had their allotment of horrors—two world wars, Vietnam, Kent State, the list is long—but no cohort of American youth has ever endured repeated mass catastrophes in the harsh, inescapable glare of a 24/7 media environment.

It has not been an easy time to grow up in the USA, says Silas Pugatch, 24, a 2005 graduate of the University of Maryland who was living in the Washington, D.C., area during the Beltway sniper attacks of 2002. And yet, he says, the randomness of horror helps his generation “just kind of realize you’re at a great time in life and you should just enjoy it while you can, because you never know.”

His is an attitude typical of many millennials. They have been shaped by trauma in their formative years, but they have not been broken. As a generation, they are a remarkably irrepressible, optimistic bunch, say social scientists, psychologists and generational researchers.

“For people individually and the generation broadly, going through adversity is something that can potentially strengthen the character of a generation,” says Dave Verhaagen, a child and adolescent psychologist in Charlotte and author of Parenting the Millennial Generation.

“They’ve seen the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, the worst natural disaster in U.S. history and the worst mass killing ever. …They have a more realistic view of the world than previous generations.”

Says Barry Jensen, 60, of Vernal, Utah, the father of four sons ages 19-30: “I grew up in the Father Knows Best era. The Kennedy assassination was the first time my little world was shattered. (This generation) is so resilient. They have seen so many things. It’s a part of their world. It’s almost an acceptance.”

And because of TV and the Internet, “they see up-close and in real time the horrible, man-made tragedies and natural disasters in ways that other generations never experienced,” Verhaagen says.

But this generation is also a stressed-out one. Many have sought counseling, and college campuses have seen increases in the numbers diagnosed with depression and other mental health disorders. Others have experienced trauma in their lives, such as domestic abuse and gang violence in their neighborhoods. For those already at risk, these events can trigger additional problems.

With “so many tragic events in a short time,” there is a danger, says Robin Gurwitch, an Oklahoma City psychologist with the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

“I’m hopeful all of these events together don’t create a cumulative traumatic impact on a generation,” she says. “I don’t believe there is a reason to suggest we’ve got kids that are going to be more at-risk.”

Says Andrew Siddons, 21, a senior at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.: “I don’t see what good it would do to just live in fear. It doesn’t make me scared as much as it makes me sad.”

‘A Sense of Urgency’

For one thing, they have each other. Frank Harrison, student body president at the University of South Florida in Tampa, was helping organize a memorial vigil to be held today for the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre. He says his generation’s experience of shared tragedy “shocks us into a sense of community. It’s not a sense of fear—‘Are we next?’ ‘Could it happen here?’ It’s more a sense of urgency that we have to stay together.”

This they have certainly done, thanks in part to their affinity for technology. Indeed, the millennials may be the most media-saturated—and media-savvy—generation ever. They are constantly linked to one another by their buddy lists, cellphones and online networks; these links may even be one way in which they have learned to cope.

“It creates an immediate social-health network,” says Adam Ross Wilson, 22, a 2006 graduate of Haverford College now working on Capitol Hill. “The chances are there’s always somebody you can reach to talk about it. It makes it a lot easier not to feel alone.”

Friends and family “are the ones I can be myself with before I can open up to anyone else,” says Elissa Gross, 22, a first-year law student at Seton Hall University who says Columbine “forced us to grow up a little faster.”

And yet media coverage of catastrophe can help intensify the shock of its occurrence. Within minutes or even seconds of any event, there’s a video feed of what’s happening, making people feel as if they’re on-the-spot present—and can’t get away, Gurwitch says.

“We may see an increase in anxiety and depression among this generation,” she says. On the other hand, “we will also see this age group say, ‘What can we do to make a difference?’ We will see that type of resilience and inspiration in this generation stepping back to say, ‘How can we make things safer and help people in need?’ “

Generational Anxiety

For most of the millennials, the defining media moments of their young lives have been 9/11 and Columbine, the high school massacre in Littleton, Colo., in 1999.

William Strauss, a social historian and co-author of several books about the millennial generation, says the millennials’ baby-boomer parents were anxious about political assassinations because that’s what they witnessed growing up. But their children’s fears are different—because they witnessed mass killings of children by peers whose motives nobody can seem to understand.

“The fact that this sort of thing can happen calls into question the super-achieving, high-stress life some of them lead,” Strauss says. The result is a generation more focused on achieving a “balanced” life.”

“When random (bad) things happen, we tend to want to smell the flowers a bit,” he says. Millennials will be inspired to “re-create a civil society and address the question of how something like this can happen.”

One strength of this generation is that its members are not afraid to seek help and counseling and be open about their feelings, especially with family and friends.

“We have a hotline and we have counselors, and I know some of my friends have even gone,” says Anoop Shah, 22, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis. “I think (counseling) is becoming even more prevalent on college campuses and high schools since Columbine.”

More worrisome is the idea that some young people have come to view these tragedies as just “a part of life,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University.

“It’s something that happens now and then,” Thompson says. “They consume it to the point that they don’t want to anymore, and then they quit consuming it.”

Logan Stommel, 18, of Washington says he feels somewhat desensitized by all these tragedies, to the point where it doesn’t affect the way he thinks about life.

“We tend to avoid the news—it’s all bad—and we’re pretty mellow about it,” he says.

“We probably know some people who are more emotionally invested. They think we’re a little cold toward situations like these.”

Shocked and saddened as they are about Virginia Tech, “it’s almost as if it’s become the norm to expect the outrageous,” says Kelvin Driscoll, 21, of Lakewood, Calif., a senior at the University of Southern California who wants to run for the state Senate.

‘No Other Choice’ But Survival

Whitney Muscha, 19, a freshman at the University of North Dakota from Killdeer, N.D., says events such as Monday’s massacre make her feel “way more paranoid.”

“It makes me sad to think that it takes such a dramatic event like this to make people more aware of what could happen to them.”

Still, another secret to coping could be just tuning it all out at some point.

“It’s a generation that is not going to be rendered incapacitated by the trauma going on around them,” says David Morrison, president of Twentysomething Inc., a consulting and research firm based in Philadelphia.

“By necessity, it’s a generation that is going to rise above it. There’s really no other choice.”

Driscoll says much the same thing.

“It does give us pause—we definitely have to pause to realize more about the world we’re living in, and to realize that if it is going to change, it’s going to be us to change it.”