9/11 shapes worldview of generation of kids

September 10, 2011 | By Todd Spangler

When the attacks came on 9/11, then-President George W. Bush was sitting in a school classroom, and so were they — the tens of millions of schoolchildren who would be raised on Facebook, Twitter and Hurricane Katrina.

From World War I through Watergate and beyond, every living generation has crises and catastrophes that help define it. It's no different for this group of so-called Millennials, now coming of age, and 9/11 — an event that shattered any myth of American invulnerability and triggered wars that still rage half a world away.

"I've never had a sense of this country as completely unbreakable," said Adam Brewster, a fifth-grader on 9/11 and now a 20-year-old junior at the University of Michigan. "It hasn't gone away in 10 years."

9/11 'part of his motivation'

There were lots of reasons Dominic Ciaramitaro, of South Lyon, Mich., wanted to enlist in the Marine Corps when he became of age — a restless nature, a need for adventure. The attacks of 9/11 played a big part, too, even though he was 10 years old when they occurred.

"That was part of his motivation," said his grandmother, Sue Boston, 70. "The nation was under attack."

Lance Cpl. Ciaramitaro, 19, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in April.

"It changed their lives and the lives of everyone, as far as I'm concerned, in an unfortunate way," said Boston, a retired school psychologist, of 9/11. "We're pretty much antiwar. We discussed it with him, and he still wanted to go."

Generational experts generally agree that 9/11 has helped shape the lives of those young adults who were 8-16 years old on Sept. 11, 2001. But then, there have been many life-changing events for those young Americans: the advent of Facebook; the election of Barack Obama as president, and images of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans underwater after Hurricane Katrina.

Demographer and author Neil Howe, who studies differences between generations, said patterns for this group of so-called Millennials were set more by their parents' attitudes and their place in history rather than the more recent events. Still, there is no mistaking the connection between today's late teens and twentysomethings who watched the terror of 9/11 unfold in school rooms and assembly halls.

"It's one of those things now, if I look at the images I get goosebumps," said Jamie Ragg, a 25-year-old living in Royal Oak, Mich.

She is in French class in Ann Arbor. Someone comes through the door saying a plane has hit something. Somebody laughs — no one knows what it means.

Through the day, it became clear, and Ragg recalled the eye-opening message she took from it: "We're not invincible.

"Bombs I heard about. Crime happens. Murders, OK. This was above and beyond that. This was true evil."

It still resonates, say the experts. If a generation's parents and historical cycles predispose them to beliefs and behaviors, 9/11 is a seminal event that still moves them. Polls — like the one of more than 1,000 young leaders released by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., this year — showed nearly 60% feel the U.S. is too involved in global affairs. More than eight in 10 can't envision a time when terrorism won't be a threat to them.

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released a survey this month showing 18- to 29-year-olds are far less likely than older Americans to say 9/11 had a huge emotional effect on them. But they are likelier to say it dramatically changed life in the U.S.

Millennials team-oriented

Howe's research shows this generation is more teamwork-oriented, closer to family, less interested in money and less comfortable with taking risks than the older, more independent, entrepreneurial and suspicious Gen Xers before it.

Raised in an era when child protection became a priority and consumer goods became increasingly targeted to child buyers, these Millennials (or Gen Yers) are less interested in working for work's sake -- they're more likely looking for a job they can be passionate about, and more likely to live at home.

Baby Boomers saw government as something to be feared; Gen Xers saw it as something largely irrelevant. Millennials, said Peter Singer, a senior fellow at Brookings, see government as something weak, "almost deserving of your sympathy." They may be more likely to see public service as a way to help.

Jennifer Hogan, 25, of Waterford, Mich., worked with a group helping victims of domestic violence. Most of her friends, she said, are teachers, social workers, counselors. Katrina, 9/11, the wars motivate their work.

Hogan wants to work for the USO, the military services organization, someday.

"I'd really like to work specifically with families — those with spouses or partners overseas — coping with that," she said.

Young Muslims' experiences

In the young leaders study at Brookings, Singer noted that a larger group of Millennials — loosely described as those born from 1980 to 2005 — are the Next Big Thing. There are more of them, in raw numbers, than Baby Boomers. They outnumber Gen Xers by 3-1. They're much more likely to admire Google and Apple than General Motors or Exxon. Three-quarters think the U.S. gets no respect abroad.

"Most of their youth was an orange alert day," Singer said.

But 9/11's effects were far from homogenous.

Zeinab Moughnia, 23, of Dearborn is the president of the Muslim Legal Society at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, and, for her, 9/11 brought changes good and bad: A newfound pride and interest in the peaceful tenets of her religion and Lebanese background, on one hand. Revulsion at shouts from a car of, "Damn Arab, go back to your country!" on the other.

In the days and months after the attacks, Moughnia stopped being "a typical American girl" disinterested in politics and religion.

She felt different. She wanted to stand up for her faith. Her heritage.

"I put on the head scarf," she said.

When Osama bin Laden was killed, she went up and down the street with her little brother in the car, "honking the horn."

In those celebrations in early May, Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center in Boston and author of A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness, saw an instinctive reaction from people too young to remember the tensions of the Cold War.

"For them," he said, "it did seem like good and evil."

That causes him concern: Unshaded, powerful feelings can lead to severe reactions — consider the Red Scare and McCarthy hearings of the 1940s and '50s.

Then again, this generation seems more open-minded, less concerned with social issues like gay marriage. Technology has helped shape their lives; there is a less rah-rah view of the nation's place in the world.

Brewster has rewatched the footage from that day — seen the History Channel accounts, seen the host's somber delivery in the first episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart after the attacks.

He will spend Sunday — the anniversary — working.

"It's just what we grew up with," he said.


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