Bin Laden's death a turning point for Millennials

May 4, 2011 | By Mary Brophy Marcus

A decade ago they were just kids — elementary school students with Pokémon backpacks; middle and high schoolers slogging through classes.

Then terrorists directed by Osama bin Laden hijacked four passenger jets on Sept. 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000, bringing down the World Trade Center towers, damaging the Pentagon — and redefining the world for a generation.

Today they are young adults, college students and high schoolers who have been shaped, in part, by the collective anxiety bin Laden helped to create. Beyond the usual benchmarks, their youths have been marked by color-coded terror alerts and fears of when the next attack might come, as well as by multiple wars, a declining economy and increasing concern that America is losing its footing as the world's most powerful and prosperous nation.

So when bin Laden was killed Sunday in Pakistan — in a raid by U.S. forces that seemed as if it could have come from one of the military-themed video games now popular with teens and young adults — the news was riveting, especially for the young.

It was largely young people who poured into the streets in Washington, New York and cities across the nation late Sunday to chant, cheer and celebrate bin Laden's death. For many who grew up seeing bin Laden as the face of evil, it was a life-changing moment — one full of relief, vindication and a new sense of hope, if not the end of some fear.

"We're the 9/11 generation, and we all remember it," says Matthew Segal, 25, co-founder and president of Our Time (, a national non-profit that represents Americans under 30.

Segal was in a 10th-grade history class in his Chicago high school on 9/11. "Later, when the attack was explained, there was a villain behind it. Now, literally, the villain of our time was captured and killed," he says. "It was clearly a defining moment for our generation."

Duke University senior Annie Kozak, who was studying for final exams in the college library Sunday night when she began hearing whispers all around her about bin Laden's demise, says that in today's society, "it's an incredibly strange thing" to be "celebrating death."

News about bin Laden's killing "was cropping up on Twitter accounts, Facebook feeds, people were texting. You could feel people getting excited," Kozak says. When video of President Obama's speech late Sunday went up on YouTube, the Duke library's Internet connection went down because so many people were streaming it.

Kozak recalls being in a middle school gym class when she heard about the 9/11 attacks. In the years since then, she says, "it's always sort of been within the realm of school and academia for us."

When news of bin Laden's death reached Georgetown University's campus in Washington, D.C., Ishita Kohli, 20, a student there, headed for the White House along with hundreds of other young people who swarmed the area.

"Everybody just dropped their books and ran down here," says Kohli, who was clad in running shoes and gym shorts. But Kohli, who grew up in the United Arab Emirates and saw how that nation changed after 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, says bin Laden's death won't end the war on terror.

However, "it is a huge symbolic step in the right direction and hopefully toward making things better in that part of the world," she says.

Rebecca Dolan, 24, of New York, whose father died in the Pentagon on 9/11, says that day's attacks were "one of the biggest events in American history in our timeline, something we will tell our children about some day."

Bin Laden's death "brings us all some sort of closure or vindication, knowing Public Enemy No. 1 is off the streets," she says. But "I was totally shocked when I heard the news. I personally had seen bin Laden as someone who would always be there in an ominous way."

'Imprinting' on young lives

The events of 9/11 and the subsequent decade — including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, worldwide terror alerts, increased security at airports — have affected everything from dreams to fears of those who were under 18 in 2001. In many ways, analysts say, it's sculpted a more politically aware and socially active generation.

"You've heard how baby ducks imprint on whoever raises them? Social scientists believe there's an imprinting effect on young people when they get closer to the age to get involved politically, sometime prior to 18," says Thomas Sander, who studies civic engagement at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "So the hypothesis was that 9/11 was kind of an imprinting moment where young people realized their fates were much more interconnected then we'd been led to believe … and that international affairs are much more consequential than they were for their parents."

Bin Laden "became a symbol for my generation. … He symbolized loss and grief and hatred, and that's how many of us defined this era," says Eric Dinenberg, 28, a business school student from Paramus, N.J., who was a freshman at George Washington University in September 2011.

The fallout from 9/11 left its mark on Jasmine Odenat, 18, an Aberdeen, Md., freshman at the College of Notre Dame, inBaltimore, who was in 4th grade in 2001.

"When (9/11) happened, I had feelings of not being safe, of being frightened, that something bad was going to happen again," she says. "To get to my house you have to drive through a long tunnel, and for a couple of years I used to worry that something would happen to us when we drove through the tunnel, like a bomb or something."

Those who've grown up since 9/11 have never known a world without metal detectors, security alerts or war, says pediatrician Claire McCarthy of Children's Hospital Boston, whose five children range in age from 5 to 20. "As I look at my younger kids, they're just used to it. They've never known what it's like to not be at war."

Nine years of war have taken a heavy toll on the children of men and women in uniform, says Jane Foy, a spokeswoman on children's mental health for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children of active-duty military personnel make 18% more trips to the doctor for behavioral problems and 19% more visits for stress disorders when a parent is deployed compared with when the parent is home, according to a study published last year in the journal Pediatrics.

Career paths were inspired by the attacks, particularly for those who joined the military.

Marine Cpl. Jesse Kyer, 21, who is based in Buford, S.C., and who was 11 in September 2001, says his job choice was influenced by the terror attacks.

"I grew up thinking Osama was a villain, like a comic book-type character. This is a really bad guy doing all this bad stuff," says Kyer, who is married to another Marine and has served for almost three years. He says his worldview and views of bin Laden have evolved since boyhood.

"Going through the military, I've realized he's just one person. It's a relief that we finally got him, but I know it's not over," Kyer says.

Martinique Perfetti, 26, of Fredricksburg, Va., a former Marine who grew up in Iowa, agrees that 9/11 "shaped our whole lives. I'd be someplace completely different if that hadn't happened."

Public service and social networking

Those who study the Millennial generation (generally those born from 1980 to 2000) say young people may indeed have reacted to the tragic events of their early years by becoming interested in public service.

In 2009, when many Millennials were entering the job market during an economic downturn, nearly 25,000 applied to the non-profit Teach for America, a 37% increase over 2007 and the most since Teach for America began in 1990. Nearly every government-funded service program saw applications jump that year.

Those who grew up in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks also are more connected socially online than earlier generations — perhaps one way they've compensated for the "look over your shoulder" and don't-trust-strangers environment in which they grew up, says Patricia Somers, an associate professor of Higher Education at the University of Texas-Austin.

"Culturally after a terror attack you realize that you don't know where the next attack may come from. Your world becomes smaller because of that. You may limit your interactions. On the other hand, we've had this huge explosion in social media, which allows people to interact without being in the same place," Somers says.

A 2010 Pew survey said three-quarters of Millennials have created a profile on a social networking site, and 83% sleep with their cellphones on or near the bed, suggesting they want to be connected constantly.

Their parents' concern for their safety likely has helped encourage that notion. Since 2001, many parents have felt a more urgent desire to make sure their children are safe and reachable at all times, says pediatrician McCarthy. "That anxiety has led parents of even young children to give them GPS-equipped cellphones, so that parents can always find them," she says.

Since the news of bin Laden's death has sunk in, the celebrating has wound down but a sense of hope prevails, which author and historian Neil Howe says is a very Millennial take on life.

He likens the news of bin Laden's death to that of the villain in the popular Harry Potter books.

"It's like Voldemort is dead," Howe says. "It's a Harry Potter world. For this generation, there's either pure evil or pure good. There's no anti-hero. They're out to get rid of these terrible forces and have a celebration. A happy ending. This is very defining for their generation. They've supplied the young troops who've been over there fighting for their lives."

But Segal says "we are not a generation that oversimplifies good and evil, nor do we revel in violence, The death of Osama Bin Laden is a sign of closure for millions, but there are thousands of my peers who are still serving and sacrificing in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. When, and if, they return home, they confront significant emotional, economic, and physical obstacles."

Contributing: Oren Dorell, Michelle Healy, Maureen Linke and Liz Szabo


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