Op-Ed: 9/11, COVID and Generation-Defining Events

How historic events and our responses to them dictate our generational attitudes

I’m a bit of a generational anomaly. I was born in 1996, and according to most, that makes me either a very young Millennial or a relatively old member of Generation Z.

I know a lot of people my age who genuinely do not know what generation they belong to. We look at the charts that categorize generations by year, but these charts seem to vary from source to source.

As an anecdote to this phenomenon, I argue that generational differences have less to do with age. They have more to do with what shaped us at an early age.

Like many Americans, I have been reflecting on the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, and about what that date means to me, culturally.

Due to my age at the time (I had just turned five) I have very little recollection of that day. I remember getting picked up from school and having a vague idea that something strange had happened.

If you ask most 25-year-olds about that day they’ll likely give you a similar report. We didn’t have an ability to comprehend the impact of that day, the loss of life, the societal implications and more.

We do remember life after 9/11.

As far back as my mind goes, we’ve always had heavy security at airports. We’ve always had a military presence in the Middle East. A significant part of my developmental stage occurred during post-9/11 America; I was surrounded by unbridled patriotism flavored by a fear of the unknown.

This setting was influential on my upbringing, and to who I am today, and it’s why I view myself as belonging to Gen Z rather than the Millennial generation.

Somebody my age may have had a more developed memory before 9/11, and they may have a decent understanding of life before and after that day. They might identify more as a millennial.

While generations tend to be organized by twenty-year blocks, the events that signify these generations are far more important than the 20-year designation.

The Greatest Generation is defined by the two world wars they fought and won.

The “boom” of the Baby-Boomer Generation was a significant event, as post-WWII population growth has been a defining feature of the United States for years.

Generation X was born out of the 1960s, a decade known for being extremely impactful to the American identity. The Civil Rights Movement, America’s doomed involvement in Vietnam, the Hippie Movement and the Moon Landings all had a profound impact on those who grew up during the decade.

Millennials grew up during the economic expansion of the Reagan era, saw the Berlin Wall collapse with the USSR, and saw the birth of the internet. And of course, this generation was affected by witnessing the 9/11 attacks as they occurred.

Gen Z has lived through the aftermath of 9/11 while seeing an unbelievable expansion of the internet and communication. Interpersonal communication became easier and easier as technology continued to improve, and it looked like we were entering a new era defined by the interconnection and cohesion of our world population.


Our next generational event.

The COVID-19 pandemic, no matter what happens moving forward, will define the next generation whether we want it to or not. Even if the pandemic were to disappear tomorrow, the result is the same.

There are babies, toddlers and children growing up now who will never remember life before COVID-19 and they will have a radically different worldview than us.

I cannot tell you what this worldview will be. I hope it will be a positive one, but there’s just no way to know.

This adds urgency to our nation’s handling of this pandemic. The choices that our leaders make will profoundly influence the attitudes of our young ones. The philosophy that defines our choices in the face of this event will define the philosophies of countless young people.

We’ve been in this pandemic for a long time now, but remember, this is not how normal used to be. This is not how normal is supposed to be.

A generation is always defined by the events surrounding or preceding it. How they’re defined is about how their predecessors handled it.

In this time of crisis, be the person who can inspire the younger generation. Make those around you feel powerful in the face of uncertainty.

If the current generations, from Gen Z to the Boomer Generation, show fierceness, resolve, unity and bravery in the face of this beast of a pandemic, the positives could resonate for decades.

If we remain hyper-politicized and give in to our tribal impulses to bring down those we disagree with, we may be looking at a dimmer future.