Defining moments Like Pearl Harbor, JFK's assassination and Columbine, Sept. 11 was a call to action.

Last Updated: Oct. 5, 2015

December 6, 2001 | By Joel Reese

No sooner had the two World Trade Center buildings disintegrated than Sept. 11 was dubbed a “defining moment” for many generations.

“For younger Americans, this is their defining moment,” intoned one wire service.

“Generations X and Y confront a defining moment,” stated ABC news.

“A defining moment in the parsing of war,” wrote the Washington Post.

The phrase has been bandied about hundreds of times since that fateful day. But how do defining moments such as this—or the JFK assassination, the Challenger explosion, etc. -change us? Can we really say this or that is a result of the Sept. 11 attack? Tomorrow, we’ll commemorate the 60th anniversary of another such moment: The bombing of Pearl Harbor.

“After Pearl Harbor, it was very clear that Americans had very specific things to do,” says Carol Gruber, a history professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. “We joined the military, took jobs in war industries, submitted to rationing, and bought war bonds. Children even brought in their rubber dolls and other toys.”

But the “shadowy sense of dread” left by Sept. 11 hasn’t provided that same commonality.

Unlike previous defining moments, there seems no clear, proper reaction for this epochal event.

Instead, the terrifying day has left at least two generations—the ones commonly known as X and Y—unsure about how to move on with their lives.

‘Profoundly terrifying’

Before we go further about defining moments, we first need to define the oft-used expression.

“Defining moments are these seconds that have this huge impact that we remember forever,” says Robert J. Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University. “All of the sudden, there is this actual, literal moment when you realize the world has changed dramatically.”

But the defining moment has to be just that—a moment, preferably complete with audio or video coverage.

The economic Depression of the 1930s, for instance, was one of the most significant times of the 20th century. But on a defining moment scale, it doesn’t rate higher than the crash of the Hindenburg, Thompson says.

“We don’t have an instance where we can look at a photo and say, ‘The Depression started here,’” Thompson says. “But we do with the Hindenburg. So as a defining moment culturally, the Hindenburg is bigger than the Depression. As a defining moment historically, though, it isn’t even close. Historically, the Hindenburg would be a footnote of a footnote of a footnote.”

The live coverage of the John Kennedy assassination made it a defining moment for baby boomers—their Pearl Harbor, Thompson says.

“For the first time, we experienced something simultaneously with everyone else,” Thompson says. “And later, we knew Oswald had been shot as soon as everyone else because TV was there. That’s when the idea occurred that we could not only witness history being reported, but we could witness it being made. The live nature of the Oswald coverage was a philosophical shift in what journalism could be and how it could impact our lives.”

Decades later, the Challenger explosion has been called a defining moment, but Thompson argues it didn’t profoundly affect people.

“The perception about the Challenger was: It blew up, and there was a teacher on it,” he says. “But I don’t think it impacted the younger generation that much. It didn’t have any long-standing ramifications.”

Who’s the enemy?

Before Sept. 11, Pearl Harbor was perhaps our crucial defining moment because it brought us into war and mobilized a generation against a knowable enemy.

“There were still racial and gender problems, but Pearl Harbor and the war gave us all a civic duty,” Gruber says. “It unified us because people knew what their duty was.”

Everyone, from 90-year-olds in Nantucket to 9-year-olds in Nevada City, shared in this common goal.

“Radio exhorted children to confront the enemy, to combat waste, and to collect scrap materials,” writes Mike Wright in “What They Didn’t Teach You About WWII.”

He continues, “Never before had so many fought so hard, so far away; never before had so much of a nation’s soul been put into one war effort.”

This clear sense of purpose differs greatly from the post-Sept. 11 America, Gruber says.

“Today, we’ve got this shadowy sense of dread,” she says. “There is no actual enemy, and we’re not in a legal state of war, so it’s not clear what we’re fighting for. We’ve been told to get back to normal, to go shopping, to go to the movies. If you want to calm people’s fears, give them something to do.”

Indeed, the Sept. 11 effects seem to have produced a decidedly mixed impact on the younger generations.

Some younger Americans say they’ll forever be looking over their shoulders as they step onto a plane or into the elevator at the Sears Tower.

“Right now, it really seems possible that I could go to the Statue of Liberty and it could explode, which is profoundly terrifying,” says Robert Siegel, 30, editor of the weekly humor magazine The Onion. “We’re still living in fear of it happening again. We’re living through something very serious.”

But then there’s Elizabeth Wurtzel, 34-year-old author of 1997’s epochal twenty-something book “Prozac Nation.”

“As of right now, it’s only one horrible, horrible day in the history of this country,” Wurtzel told National Public Radio. “But maybe it’s just a refusal to believe anything terrible is going to happen.”

Thompson says his students have returned to their pre-Sept. 11 ways—for the most part.

“They’re back to their happy hours, and their ironic, Chandler Bing-ing (the sarcastic character on ‘Friends’) of the language,” he says. “But that is joining with a sense of concern and historical context that anyone who came of age after the cold war didn’t have to deal with before.”

Generation of survivors

The conventional wisdom has been that those under 20, commonly referred to as the millennial generation or Generation Y, will be most adversely affected by the Sept. 11 tragedy since they’re old enough to understand it but young enough to be impressionable.

Wrong, says William Strauss, a generational historian and author of “The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy,” from McLean, Va.

“Younger people have handled the tragedy with a lot more equanimity than adults,” Strauss says. “That’s because they had a similar event a few years ago, called Columbine. Their lives were turned upside-down in a way similar to what adults have experienced with the Sept. 11 attack.”

The generation most likely to be impacted by Sept. 11, Strauss says, is Generation X—people in their 20s to late-30s.

“This was a fundamental Generation X moment,” he says. “They were the firemen, the troops that have gone to war, and they’re a plurality of those killed.”

And contrary to the prevailing belief that Gen X’ers aren’t tough enough to be up for the challenge, this age group is more than ready to respond, says Ann Fishman, president of the New Orleans-based Generational Targeted Marketing Corp.

“Generation X might not have had the JFK assassination or Pearl Harbor or Vietnam,” Fishman says. “But this generation might’ve had it worse. There was the huge number of divorces, which produced stepfamilies and split custody. There were latchkey kids, violence on streets, violence on TV, the new notion that sex can kill you, and younger people were locked out of the job market by the huge number of boomers.”

Rather than produce an age group full of passive cowards, Fishman says, this background led to a generation of survivors. At least four of the people aboard ill-fated Flight 93 who tried to retake control of the plane were Gen X’ers, Fishman notes.

“Baby boomers will complain that they had to go through drills at schools to prepare for nuclear attack,” Fishman says. “But they went home to stable families, stable religious support, and for the most part they had good economic times. Generation X didn’t have that.”

Fight for peace

But that still leaves the question about how exactly Sept. 11 has affected the younger generations.

For a while, there was the widespread belief that they’d be so affected by the terror of the attacks that they’d completely abandon the pursuit of material goods.

One anticipated result, the thinking went, would be an uptick in the number of Peace Corps applications after Sept. 11.

Turns out that’s not quite right. The number of Peace Corps applicants has indeed been higher since Sept. 11, but the increase began months before the attacks.

“We had a big increase in applicants in July of this year, too,” says Scot Roskelley, public affairs specialist with the Chicago regional office for the Peace Corps. “Because it began in July, it’s hard to extrapolate that the increase is because of the terrorist bombings. It could also be the weakening economy.”

One local applicant had several reasons for trying the Peace Corps—and none of them were related to the Sept. 11 bombings.

“I decided to join the Peace Corps because I just graduated with a master’s degree in social work, and obviously right now the job market is a little slow,” says 24-year-old Kelly Corley of Crystal Lake. “I figured it would give me a leg up on the competition when I get back. Plus, I love to travel and experience other cultures.”

Interestingly, Corley spoke just before she was leaving to fly to India to do volunteer work—a duty she signed up for a week for before Sept. 11.

Get even, or get nice?

So maybe the answer is, we’re not sure how younger Americans will move on from the Sept. 11 attacks.

Generations X and Y might strive to eliminate the divides that separate us from countries like Afghanistan, or they might go on to look at such nations as the “them” in the “us vs. them” equation.

“Some people are going to ask some very thoughtful questions,” says Thompson. “But others are going take the very tribal, very American stance, and want to go in with sheer brute force.

“England has King Arthur and the Round Table and this notion that might isn’t right,” he continues. “We have no history of this kind of introspection. We have Paul Bunyan, who’s really huge. Our usual way of doing this is, ‘Let’s get back at them, and let’s super-size it while we’re at it.’”