They say every generation has a major incident that defines their identity. For my generation, it was September 11th. My formative years happened in a bizarre stretch of time that’s still draped in neon and pleather in my memory, a cultural and technological revolution you could feel happening. Y2K, hanging chads, AOL Instant Messenger, the cell phone, the internet, Hotmail, NSYNC and Britney. But on 9/11, something happened. We’d been shaken to our core and nothing felt the same. We were vulnerable. We’d been cut open.
In post 9/11 America, I got the sense that the world was dangerous and unsettled, but it was okay because the adults were in charge. Immediately after, my peers and relatives were deployed to countries I couldn’t identify on a globe, Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting for democracy and freedom. We received messages of prepackaged Americanism, wrapped in plastic and served with a smile. Flags on porches and lapels. Jets flying over stadiums. Country songs about putting boots in the asses of terrorists. Meaty, full-throated patriotism. And all the while, we were told not to worry. We were winning. A Mission Accomplished banner unfurled on an aircraft carrier. We were AMERICA. The adults were in charge.
At that time, you didn’t question any of it. To wonder why we were bombing the shit out of a country allegedly harboring WMDs was to insult the troops. Slews of young people my age were sent to these far away places to fight, to die, to be maimed for a lifetime and come home with pain and injury and PTSD. Groups of people became enemies to be shunned and suspect. You took your shoes off at the airport. The message still remained: the adults are in charge. Go to college, just keep going, buy stuff, and everything will be fine.
Except it wasn’t. Images from Abu Ghraib prison and slain journalists and bodies hanging burned from bridges were splashed on the news. Grainy, green screen videos of explosions over Baghdad played in endless loops on CNN. My first election was in 2004 and I voted for George W. Bush because I thought continuity was important in a time that felt so unsteady we’d fall down if we leaned too far either direction. I was still convinced we’d go back to the way things were, the cushy, gold plated opulence of the 90s.
Millennials like me went to college, racked up astronomical debts, and graduated into the worst economic decline in decades. Political upheaval emerged in rebellion against the election of Barack Obama. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street were formed. But political engagement still it felt distant to me. Even though I was in college at the time, I never felt like my anger and disappointment could be vocalized. Sit down. Shut up. Do your work. The adults are talking. The first time I’d ever seen a political demonstration in class was when a professor went on a long rant about how people who voted for Bush were stupid. A veteran stood, told her he’d fought for his country and wouldn’t tolerate her speaking that way, and promptly left. I never saw anything like that again.
My generation is called many things. Lazy. Entitled. Needy. We’re blamed for “killing” things like mayonnaise and Toys R Us. We are accused of being too self-centered and obsessed with the frivolous. And maybe that’s true to some degree. But maybe it’s because we weren’t included in the conversation about our own futures. Maybe it’s because we were assured that everything would work out fine when our eyes and wallets told us very clearly it would not. We are the early adopters of technology and the products of D.A.R.E programs and Captain Planet, created for us to consume but not to care about. In a way, I feel I missed my opportunity to be that young, passionate college kid because we weren’t allowed to. The American status quo depended on our silence.
My fellow Millennials, I hope you’re voting today for your neighbors and friends and issues that matter to you. We’ve been shoved out for a long time, and we have the power to change the conversation. I’ll fully admit I’ve been complacent and naive. I thought someone else would handle it. But now I’m paying attention and taking action. This Ohioan knows the name of the Attorney General of Georgia, thank you very much. We may have been sidelined, we may get blamed for the dumbest things ever (hello, killing the napkin industry), but it’s up to us to build the foundation so the next generation can step on our shoulders and ascend. We’re in charge now. Don’t squander the opportunity to be heard.