Inauguration is a "Generational Touchstone"
January 23, 2009 | By Carla Marinucci
America's twentysomething Millennials have driven, hitchhiked, walked, biked and bused their way to Washington in hordes this week to witness the must-see, must-be-there event of their lives - the swearing-in of Barack Obama.
Many of their Baby Boomer parents can relate: They remember this thing called Woodstock.
A rock concert on a farm in upstate New York - where Jimi Hendrix's guitar wailed the "The Star-Spangled Banner" during three days of rock 'n' roll, sex and drugs - doesn't approach the weight of the inauguration of the first African American president.
But there are surprising similarities, experts say. Just as Woodstock was for their parents, Obama's moment assuming the presidency represents a generational touchstone event - one that will define Millennials' lives, their age and their experience and become the event they will tell their kids and grandkids about.
And if history is a guide, a lot of folks who aren't there today will claim they were. Woodstock attracted a relatively small 400,000, and somehow it seems millions remember being on hand.
As with African Americans, who are converging on Washington to celebrate a profound marker in civil rights history with the Obama election, many Millennials feel a stake so profound in this inauguration that it simply will not be enough to watch this one on TV or even via the Internet: Their generation supported Obama 2-1, and their passion for the candidate - and his call for change - provided the critical fuel for his efforts.
That's why, as they freeze on the National Mall and roam the city this week clutching hand warmers, waiting for the big event, many of them say the events today represent the time and place that perfectly dramatizes who they are - and they want to say, "I was there."
'We've waited for this'
"This is our moment," says Jonah Khandros, 23, of Orinda, a Democratic political activist who worked on Obama's campaign and traveled to the nation's capital this week. He plans to celebrate the inauguration by uniting with dozens of friends from high school and college who have scattered around the country. "We've waited for this; a lot of us worked for it," he said. "But even if your only contribution was talking to your mom and dad and convincing them to vote for Obama, we feel our generation gets a lot of credit."
Morley Winograd, an author and a fellow at NDN, a progressive think tank and advocacy organization, says the Woodstock comparison is entirely appropriate. "This is their moment to demonstrate to America what they think America's future should be like," said Winograd. "They are going to celebrate that and underline it for all of America. Of course, the race relations breakthrough is huge, and the media will be focused on it ... but the generational difference, the moment the generational shift takes place, is also an important story."
Gaby Kipnis, 23, who hails from Berkeley, represents that hunger for history. She took vacation time from her job as a strategy consultant in Manhattan to share the inaugural experience with a dozen of her colleagues, bumming a place to stay just to be in the vicinity.
"There is this incredible energy among everyone I know. My friends from high school and college and every walk of life are sleeping on floors and couches and chairs, in D.C., Bethesda (Md.) and everywhere to be here," she said by telephone Monday as she walked the Mall. "We're sleeping three to a bed right now, but that's fine," she said. "And there are so many events going on, it's hard not to end up at one. Everyone knows someone who's connected."
Brand Weiss, 23, of Danville - who now lives in Brooklyn and is looking for work in marketing and advertising - describes that feeling as a sense of "collective effervescence" about the happenings in Washington.
He's traveled to the nation's capital to sleep on the couch of his friend A.J. Hermann, whose apartment is crowded with six other young adults from out of town with the same idea. "For those of us who weren't able to work on the campaign, this is a chance to feel connected to each other," Weiss said.
But it also has allowed people who grew up in the two terms of George W. Bush to make a discovery, he said: "It's nice not to be self-conscious about being patriotic - after eight years of being wary."
NDN Fellow Michael Hais, who co-authored Millennial Makeover: My Space, YouTube and the Future of American Politics with Winograd, said that the Millennial generation's overwhelming and early support of Obama means Millennials are poised to watch his swearing-in with a high level of connection. A recent Rasmussen poll, he said, showed they are expected to tune in to today's events at more than twice the level of other generations.
Wade Randlett, who heads Bay Area Dems, a political action group, said that the Woodstock moment for the Millennials comes with a recognition of the country's dramatic departure - when not only will political power change hands, but the political landscape will change forever.
"There is only one first, only one inauguration of a black president," he said. And while a woman or Latino president might follow Obama, "This is when the doors were opened forever ... and they have to see it happen."
For young people, that underscores Obama's collective call to action and change, but also how much the collective wisdom about their generation and its engagement in politics has been off the mark, he said.
"People said (they) are apathetic and don't engage, and they were wrong," he said. "And everything that was supposed to be impossible happened. The inauguration is the physical celebration of all that."
Kipnis says not all the Millennials expected to be present - or to be so passionate about the new president.
"I was a Hillary (Rodham Clinton) supporter, big time," she said. "But the day he gave his victory speech, watching him walk on stage and seeing his wife and (Vice President-elect) Joe Biden, I felt an emotion overcoming me," she said. "It told me that this would be a monumental moment in history. This is it. And I'm going to come and witness it."