The 9/11 Generation’s uncommon pragmatism

Michael Knowles Actor and Political Spokesman
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As the Class of 2012 prepares to depart paradise, a first look at the real world we left behind four years ago arouses in us passions even more fervent than the usual catharsis of commencement. When we gaze upon the world before us, Charlton Heston’s famous quip from The Planet of the Apes comes to mind:

“You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

Pardon the outburst — emotions run high during commencement. But at some point during these shortest, gladdest years of life, our shining city upon a hill seems to have slightly dimmed, and with it, the world on which it casts its light. We graduate at a time when our national debt — a time-gap tax better called generational theft — exceeds the entirety of our economy, when youth unemployment is the highest it’s been in over 60 years, and when student loans eclipse almost all other personal debt in the United States.

Despite our political significance, the 9/11 Generation is not particularly partisan or activist because the problems we face cross party lines. For the first time in American history, the generation in power is handing down to its children an America that is less vital and less good than the one it inherited for itself. We are the most educated, most indebted, and least employed generation in American history, yet somehow the politicians who created this mess — a bipartisan coalition of New Democrats, Compassionate Conservatives, and so-called “post-partisans” — wonder why we care more about finding our own jobs than we do about helping them keep theirs.

Our parents have trouble understanding the 9/11 Generation because we’re unlike any they’ve ever seen.

CBS News’ profile of us, “The Age of the Millennials,” observes that our hard work and resourcefulness render us a new “greatest generation,” but our drive and ambition have made us self-obsessed.

We didn’t skip class to protest or show up just to sit-in. We were always too busy taking the music lessons and SAT prep classes that would send us through the most competitive college admissions process in history. There was simply never time to get out into the streets as our parents did. We’re overachievers, it is said, and we care only about ourselves.

This description is accurate, but it misses the point. Sure, the 9/11 Generation is not passionately political. Apart from the few of us who sat around and “occupied,” the only political rally we’ve taken part in lately was Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s protest of protests, organized to restore moderation — the grand affirmation of our ideological apathy. We are not culture warriors, as our parents were. The hippies of the Baby Boom preached social change from the concert stage to the city park. The hipsters of the Pay-Me Boom sit in coffee shops and office buildings because we’d rather make money or art on our MacBooks than love or war in the streets.

But the great irony is that our supposedly self-obsessed generation works so hard and spreads itself so thin, despite knowing that we will never reap the full fruits of our labor. The relatively low wages we earn in our youth will follow us throughout our careers. The social welfare programs in which we invest today will be bankrupt when it’s our turn to cash in. This bleak political reality explains our uncommon pragmatism.

We realize the problems we face are neither blue nor red — they’re crumpled green. The questions of the day revolve around neither philosophy nor ideology. In the end, they all come down to basic math. History will not remember us for our slogans or speeches. We’ll be known for our hardships and hard work.

We contrast with our parents’ generation as night to day. The Boomers blossomed during the Summer of Love, the 9/11 Generation during the Fall of Despair, and we now set off from our childhood homes and our alma maters into the debris of the worst economic catastrophe in three-quarters of a century.

We’re embarking on the journey of our lives stripped of everything save our hearts, minds, and bodies. We’ll work twice as hard for half as much as the generation before us, and yet we are thankful. The struggles that defined our upbringing have strengthened us for the task of restoring this last best hope of man on earth. We celebrate the enormity of the challenges ahead, that history might call us great.

Michael Knowles is a 2012 graduate of Yale University. He recently served as National Youth Co-Chairman of Jon Huntsman’s 2012 presidential campaign.