How The Collapse Of America Formed The Most Optimistic Generation

by Zach Russell

Most American citizens would not call it a privilege to grow up in a post-9/11 era. But for some reason, “privileged” has become the banner of our generation.

We 20-somethings — like all 20-somethings — have been molded by the major events of our childhood via something called the “period effect.” These major events include shootings, bombings, war and the second worst collapse of the global economy.

The elderly have the habit of saying they had it worse than us, and up until our parents, they were right. They fought in WWII, lived through the Dust Bowl and came of age during the first worst collapse of the global economy.

But our parents? They actually had it pretty easy.

Our parents are Baby Boomers, born approximately between 1946 and 1964 and raised in what historians call the Golden Age of Capitalism. When WWII ended, our grandfathers returned home to our yearning grandmothers, and boom: babies.

America's population exploded, and suddenly, there were a lot more Joneses to keep up with. Fence sales skyrocketed, Beagle-breeders rejoiced and everyone owned a fridge. Suburbia was born. It was the best of times, and it was the kind-of-frightening times.

After the war, our nation experienced around 23 years of unmitigated economic growth, but also constant fear of nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Soviets. “The world really was on the brink of nuclear war. I was viscerally afraid, and I wasn't alone,” writes David Ropeik about his 11-year-old perception of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

These were the formative years of Mr. and Mrs. Your Parents, when the American Dream was becoming a reality, as was the realization that we could all kill each other incredibly quickly. Fear of the bomb was domestic, but the true suffering was mostly Japanese.

Now, let's look to our generation: the Millennials, born between 1982 and 2004. We were kids during the worst decade for mass shootings. We heard about 9/11 in gym class. We formed our career aspirations just in time for the stock market to crush them.

We came of age in chaos. They came of age within the strength of a united nation. They feared bombs, but we were the ones who actually watched the towers fall.

I can't sit in a crowded theater without constantly scanning the entrance and preparing to duck. It's a disturbing reality, and it's left us starved for meaning, not money.

The patriotism Millennials felt post-9/11 took the form of civic and community engagement, with 83 percent of kids aged 14 or 15 engaging in volunteering and an upsurge of young voters in the 2004 and 2008 elections. The attacks shook us as a generation, and they made it brutally clear that this world needs to change. It was also clear that we need to be the ones to do it.

In a 2011 study done by Harris Interactive, researchers found that 30 percent of our generation identifies meaningful work as the “single most important measure of a successful career.” More than 90 percent of us want to use our skills to benefit a cause, and over half of us would take a pay cut to find work that matches our values.

Salary has fallen as a priority, as much as it has as an economic reality. On average, we are $2,000 poorer than our parents were in their 20s, and our median income is shrinking, not growing.

Starting in the '70s, newer generations were being spawned incrementally worse-off than their parents, and the trend hasn't stopped.

“Though much more productive and generally better educated, most of today's workers are falling farther and farther behind their parents' generation in most measures of economic well-being,” Phillip Longman, senior editor at the Washington Monthly, explains.

When prosperity isn't guaranteed, money can no longer be the goal. With the 2008 crash gifting us the highest unemployment rate of any living generation, the consumptive lifestyle of our parents makes increasingly less sense.

A 2014 UBS Investor Watch reported that 69 percent of our parents believe we won't live up to their successes, but it also showed that 69 percent of us don't even define success as financial. Rather, we've recast success into the mold of achievements and emotional and experiential well-being. Of the 24 percent of us who view success as financial, a meagre 12 percent believe success is defined by “owning things I aspired to have, like art, a second home, a boat, etc.”

F*ck the boat. We want a happy family and a life full of rich experiences.

If our parents are narcissistic materialists, we're ravenous experientialists. We crave meaningful moments, and honestly, so does everyone else. What sets us apart is the fact that we're actually indulging our cravings.

We travel more than any other generation, even though our paychecks are substantially lower. The United Nations reports that young travelers annually spend over $180 billion on travel, which is an increase of nearly 30 percent since 2007, despite a 5 percent drop in income over the same timeline. We're also staying overseas longer — by an average of 44 days — and forgoing typical destination spots like Paris in favor of off-the-beaten towns like Dalat, Vietnam.

Technology allows us to personalize our experiences in a way our parents never could. TripAdvisor and Airbnb means we're our own travel agents and concierges. We use Yelp and Tinder to discover what, exactly, we're doing every night.

We want a piece of us in everything we do, which explains our cover story in Time as the “The Me Me Me Generation.” Millennials: the self-indulgent, self-promoting, selfie-taking monsters.

Yet, there's one generation whose egotism even we can't rival: that of our parents.

In the 1976 issue of New York Magazine, journalist Tom Wolfe catalogued our parents as the premier “Me Decade.”  They are the OG narcissists. They came of age during the popularization of jogging, yoga, LSD, self-help books and a culture that was damn near pro-pollution (see children bathing next to chemical plants in Louisiana).

Both we and our parents are self-involved, but we frequently use our selfishness to better help others.

For example, let's look at how our respective generations donate. In the workforce, the traditional way to donate is by sending a portion of your paycheck to your company's de-facto charity. It could be Toys for Tots or Bat Conservation International. If your boss likes bats, you do too.

Not us. Rather than sending a small percent of our earnings to the bats, “[M]illennials are by themselves giving time and money to causes that matter to them,” writes bestselling author, Brigid Schulte, in the Washington Post. We investigate before we donate to assure that the cause has merit and the organization is not corrupt.

Our parents give because it's just what you do, even if you hate bats. Because hey, you're a company man, right?

Our different types of giving reflect larger truths about how we navigate our respective lives. Millennials actively search for purpose, whereas our parents fall into meaning passively.

Raised in a largely materialistic era, our parents found purpose within the 60-hour workweek they created. In fact, an Allianz study done in 2015 reported that our parents' biggest regret upon retirement is they didn't work enough. My own mother retired young (in her mid-40s), and she has since gone back to work to renew her sense of purpose.

“I don't get why you guys are so concerned with happiness,” my mom has said of our generation. “I remember being worried about getting a good job, one I could be proud of, something I was trained for that people would respect. There was no primary goal of finding a job where I was happy.”

Our parents found meaning in the defined equation of work equals life: The harder you work, the better your life. We've thrown out that equation and replaced it with something entirely more ill-defined.

We want to better the world within the context of a fulfilling life. But so far, no one has derived a cure-all equation for that.

We have lofty goals – impossible goals, some parents might say – which is why we're dissatisfied with the currently soul-crushing state of the workplace. We want the world, and they wanted a nice white-picket fence.

Our parents may think we picked a poor financial climate to be so choosy in, but nothing about our upbringing was up to us. They raised us in the age of the participation trophy (when everyone's a winner).

The Internet taught us the meaning of instant gratification, and our helicopter parents whirred us from dirt field to recital, cheering us on at every stop. Add one serving of early exposure to chaos, violence and terrorism, and you're going to get an individual who's primed to seize the meaningful moment.

We're products of our circumstances, but we're not victims of them.

Despite the current hail of bullets and gasping bank accounts, the Pew Research Center reports we're more optimistic about the future than our parents were at a similar age, by a margin of 40 percent.

This optimism has been fueled by our we-centric upbringing, which has pushed us to higher aspirations than material goods. We jumped off the workday conveyor belt after we realized it ended at a gilded headstone engraved with, "He was a good worker."

Our parents may say they regret not working more, but at the threshold of death, we all regret the same things. According to “The Top Five Regrets Of The Dying,” a book by palliative care nurse Bonnie Ware, the two top deathbed regrets included living the life that's expected of you instead of your true life and working too much.

When the end finally comes, we realize we spent too much time chasing external goals like money (or that damn boat).

In the short term, our generation is fiscally screwed. But in the long, long term, maybe it's time we start worrying about our parents, instead of the other way around.