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The 9/11 Generation is the New Greatest Generation

The 9/11 Generation is the New Greatest Generation
© The Hill photo illustration

I am part of the 9/11 Generation — a cross-section of younger Generation X’ers, millennials and older Generation Z’ers.

Now, let’s quickly consider what the 9/11 Generation has experienced in just the last 20 years: the deadliest attack on the United States in American history, the longest war in American history, the highest unemployment rate and the two largest global economic collapses since the Great Depression, the lowest oil prices in world history, and the deadliest pandemic in 103 years since the onset of the Spanish Flu in 1917.

Yet, despite the fact that the 9/11 Generation has been mostly entry-level to mid-level employees or even college students during this time frame, it is now up to us to unravel this mess. Not only that, it will be up to the 9/11 Generation to lead the U.S. and the world into a better future, as we rapidly become the decision-makers and leaders within government, the private and nonprofit sectors, and local communities.

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We may not know it yet, but the 9/11 Generation is the New Greatest Generation.

To be clear, the phrase “New Greatest Generation” takes nothing away from the World War II era’s “Greatest Generation.” If anything, they have passed along the baton, as they are sadly and disproportionally being affected by COVID-19. 

The 9/11 Generation remembers how courteous everyone was to one another after the September 11 attacks, and how the nation came together in anger and mourning. Similarly, the Greatest Generation can remember the New York City ticker tape parade after World War II, and the following decades of growth. These momentous events have something in common: adversity. 

It is easy to lose perspective about what is truly important until it is taken away. Great leadership is needed during times of hardship.

Once COVID-19 has passed and the global economy resumes its next wave of growth, it will be the 9/11 Generation that leads the United States. It is up to this generation to either continue to build upon past policies, which arguably created the volatility of the last 20 years, or to reset our core values as a nation and build a future that is more sustainable, resilient, and wholly realistic about the challenges of the world we face. 

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The New Greatest Generation has endured the required adversity to gain a deep societal perspective; we have the scar tissue to prove it, and we have demonstrated the courage to make the tough decisions required to move forward. 

Moreover, the 9/11 Generation will have to ask questions that previously America had the luxury to ignore or delay. For example, is it acceptable that foreign nations, with questionable human rights records and destabilizing geopolitical goals, hold an effective monopoly on the supply chain for pharmaceutical drugs, N95 mask production, and rare earth metals, such as the kind extracted from California’s Mountain Pass Mine? Perhaps the mathematical financial benefits to shareholders of a just-in-time inventory system based upon global trade do not hold up when other factors such as national security and public health are taken into account.

Does the United States really need to bring back manufacturing to the United States? Of course low-cost foreign labor and manufacturing keeps prices low for American consumers, but at what cost? Perhaps there is a middle ground, where only essential manufacturing is relocated to either the U.S. or to friendly and trustworthy developing nations that will not threaten to cut off manufacturing in times of crisis.

Where is the United States trending with China, for instance, as it relates to future geopolitical conflict? If the United States dredged up billions of tons of mud and built a series of islands off the coast of Cuba and militarized them, there would be an international uproar. The Chinese built up the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and based fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles on them; the international community, led by the United States, sat back and watched it happen. China’s leader has consolidated power while the U.S. government struggles in passing an annual budget. The enduring Chinese are capitalizing on the United States’ short-term thinking, while they continue to sow discord and infiltrate our highest tech defense companies and most prestigious Ivy League universities

The experiences of the last 20 years have been preparing the 9/11 Generation to become the New Greatest Generation. As Adm. William McRaven, former head of Joint Special Operations Command, said in response to the criticism that millennials often face: “[Detractors] talk about millennials being soft and pampered and entitled, well I'm quick to say, then you've never seen them in a firefight in Afghanistan. … This is a fabulous generation, and anybody that worries about the future of the U.S., I don't think you need to worry."

Matthew J. Kuta is president and COO of Voyager Space Holdings. He is a former Goldman Sachs private equity investor; a member of the Council on Foreign Relations; and F-15E fighter pilot with combat experience in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, where he received the Distinguished Flying Cross.