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The fractured generation takes shape

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For a crisis that many Americans are experiencing through Zoom, Twitter, and Tiger King, decidedly 21st-century phenomena, there have been a lot of comparisons to World War II. 

The United Nations secretary-general António Guterres likened the coronavirus pandemic to the war; surgeon general Jerome Adams referred to our “Pearl Harbor moment.” When Queen Elizabeth gave a rare television address from Buckingham Palace, many recalled King George VI’s famous 1939 radio speech.

Plenty have objected: a virus is not an antagonist with whom you can negotiate peace. Some hear a hint of xenophobia.

But as a college dean, an American studies scholar, and a parent of four children aged 20 to 8, I hear something profound in the juxtaposition.  

Namely, it corroborates my sense that the still-unfolding crisis with all its attendant disasters will be the defining moment for the current generation of college and high-school-aged students, the way WWII was for those we now call the “greatest generation.”  

While many parents are necessarily focused on the struggles of imposed homeschooling, the pathos of missed senior proms and canceled graduations, and the abrupt and awkward return of college-aged children, something momentous is happening — a generation is being defined. 

I think of this as the fractured generation. 

Through text messages, Snapchats, FaceTime calls, TikToks, and showing up early to virtual classrooms, 14-21-year-olds are negotiating on their own terms what they are going through. 

We have been calling those born since 1997 “Generation Z,” for no good reason except that they are two generations since Generation X (my own).  We haven’t thought enough about them or what distinguishes them from the Millennials, whom they follow.

As Gen Z started showing up in college, educators began noticing a difference from their predecessors. For starters, they are the first generation too young to remember the world before 9/11 and the ceaseless “war on terror” that followed. I’ve been doing an experiment for years on campus. This fall was the first when almost no students could remember the morning of Sept. 11. (Most current seniors were born in 1997 or 1998).

U.S. preoccupation with the Middle East ran in the background of their lives, whether through personal connections to deployed soldiers or obsessions with terrorism, sleeper cells, and drone warfare that pervaded journalism and pop culture. For many young people, this mirrored racial war at home, punctuated by the murder of 17- and 18-year olds: Trayvon Martin in 2012, Michael Brown and Laquan McDonald in 2014.

Their school years were marked by violence and fear. Bracketed by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, when they were in elementary school, and the Parkland shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, when they were in middle and high school, lockdown drills and abrupt school closures based on anonymous threats were their “duck and cover. 

They came of age during the digital revolution, a technological transformation that moved with staggering speed. Facebook launched in 2004 when the oldest of them were first-graders; the first iPhone in 2007; Instagram 2010; Snapchat 2011. Whatever the platform, they find each other easily and create massive imagined communities that elude their elders. Download TikTok and search covid19 to get a sense.

The digital age opened possibilities for positive change but also something dark about how they engage with each other — shorter attention spans, easy access to hardcore porn, digital bullying, and collegiate “hookup culture.” The harsh strife and antagonisms that marked the 2016 presidential campaign — fueled by social media — unleashed public expressions of misogyny and racism that pulled the rug out from the more tolerant aspects of the Obama years, which marked their youth.

The paradox of digital media — as both liberating and destructive — underlies what might seem contradictory about the fractured generation’s political engagements. In my experience as an educator, this cohort has a deep sense of social commitment and a profound distrust of government. 

They have a collective understanding that global climate change poses an existential threat to humanity and that gun violence and structural racism are national scourges. They rally behind 17-year-old environmentalist Greta Thunberg, the young anti-gun activists who created March for Our Lives, the organizers of Black Lives Matter, and the architects of the Green New Deal. 

In November 1942, at an early turning point in WWII, Winston Churchill famously said, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

We are perhaps at the end of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but as we prepare to send off another cohort of graduates into a collapsing economy, it’s urgent to ask: what do we make of this unique fractured generation that has come of age during such times? What will they make of us — and themselves? 

Brian T. Edwards is the dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Tulane University. His most recent book is “After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East.” Follow him on Twitter: @briantedwards


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