So this is just throwing together the bits of what was to be a piece three- or four-times this length, that I just scrapped. But since Occupy has kind of made it relevant in my mind, I strung parts of the draft together and updated a thing or two.
There have only been four unifying cultural objects from the last decade. Harry Potter, The Dark Knight, Inception, and 9/11. They all deal in death.
It’s arbitrary that the pop culture ones all do — J.K. Rowling thought up Harry on a train in 1992, Batman’s always been dark — but it’s not arbitrary they all hooked into our lives. I don’t think so anyway. It would all be thrilling anyway, but grief and decay — those are the aughts.
And this is because 9/11 happened. I started writing this post months ago, because it’s the post I’m always writing in my head, intending it to be about 9/11, before I realized: As much as it’s about 9/11, as much as I can trace it all back in my mind, it’s about something a little different, something that Occupy Wall Street has clarified and crystallized.
But here is what happened and where it started: On a very beautiful day, two planes hit two towers and everyone found out at school.
AND SO HISTORY BEGINS.
That’s what most people between 21 and 25 will tell you. The Twin Towers become one of two limits on this regression we came of age within — everything before behind a cotton-candy champagne film, and everything since grim mash-up of hurricanes and wars and the worst economy since the Great Depression.
It’s all false, history never ended and history didn’t begin anew. We all misremember these things, codify songs and jokes into a map that stretches out behind us, so we can navigate through adolescence and its hierarchies, inject meaning into coincidence or marketing.
But coincidence and marketing (among other things) allowed this generation to foster this single expectation: That we were bound for unparalleled creativity and halcyon coalitions, built to solve problems, and find prosperity in the solutions. And the cotton candy champagne of all that might have dissolved with time, but two planes hit two towers. It might well have been the Big Bang, really, with the rearrangement of particles that followed.
Now it’s looking like those people who believe history began will be some kind of lost generation.
The defining part of The Beginning for this generation, however, isn’t 9/11 itself. It’s the reaction that followed.
The country came together in an unprecedented way — and that BURNED into the collective consciousness of this generation.
No single thing has had more of an effect on so many than that moment of UNITY. It faded away, because unity like that must (and we really did have differences and divisions among us), but this generation keeps seeking it, trying to recapture it.
And that’s where history begins. Expand, extend, explode, but always keep moving. Keep moving until you become a force, one large vector, one moving community, free from the burden of tradition, of guilt, of preservation. We can come together, and it means something that we’ve come together. That sort of thing.
The logical ideal for such a group of people would be such an overwhelming cause that decisions are then made in deference to that guiding cause or force in your life.
It’s not jingoism or patriotism or any of that; it’s the idea that everybody was united behind a common, unequivocally correct cause, and could be subsumed by the cause. Generation Y, after all, is the most structured generation ever, that thrives in situations with clear rules and established procedures for decision making.
But don’t forget: The post-9/11 unity was extremely atypical, probably once in a lifetime, in a modern society. To get it at that age is…misleading. It’s like an early drug addiction to community, for a generation predisposed to addiction. This is a good blackout. It’s that feeling of the extraneous falling away, of narrowed focus and purpose, of brotherhood — the generation loves to drink, after all, so why wouldn’t they try to capture it in the daytime? An unspeakably bad thing happened, and so we came together in an unimaginable way. This set up a simple equation: a bad thing occurs, and we come together.
The problem is bad things keep happening, without reprieve. It is an 808 of heartbreak — wars, hurricanes, massacres, and that economy.
Generation 9/11 is not built for what they got. Fastidiousness and inclusiveness do not make for much in an idling economic wasteland.
Elizabeth Bowen got it right in The Death of the Heart: “Makes of men date, like makes of cars; Major Brutt was a 1914-18 model: there was now no market for that make.”
Generation 9/11 was built for a place — for an economy — that no longer exists.
The New York Times hit on this beat last month, just the latest in a small canon of a certain brand of cocktail (part delusion, part enabling, part tragedy):
Meet the members of what might be called Generation Limbo: highly educated 20-somethings, whose careers are stuck in neutral, coping with dead-end jobs and listless prospects.
And so they wait: for the economy to turn, for good jobs to materialize, for their lucky break. Some do so bitterly, frustrated that their well-mapped careers have gone astray. Others do so anxiously, wondering how they are going to pay their rent, their school loans, their living expenses — sometimes resorting to once-unthinkable government handouts.
“We did everything we were supposed to,” said Stephanie Morales, 23, who graduated from Dartmouth College in 2009 with hopes of working in the arts. Instead she ended up waiting tables at a Chart House restaurant in Weehawken, N.J., earning $2.17 an hour plus tips, to pay off her student loans. “What was the point of working so hard for 22 years if there was nothing out there?” said Ms. Morales, who is now a paralegal and plans on attending law school.
A generation of drifters, or else, people who make pragmatic choices not for their pragmatism but because those choices are the only choice.
Megan McArdle wrote last month about the way a similar generation of young men took jobs in their home towns they might not have otherwise taken:
But you don’t pick up and move to a distant city when unemployment is running at 25%; my grandfather, born in 1915, came of age during the deepest part of the Great Depression. He stayed home where he had family who could help him find a job, and take care of him if things didn’t work out. By the time the Great Depression really ended, he had a fledgling business and a family. He wasn’t going anywhere. Neither were the other men of his generation, who had carved out spots for themselves in the local economy. They sustained the prosperity of the town for a couple of decades beyond where it should have lasted.
Unemployment for those aged 18 to 29 is 16.4 percent right now; it’s been at 16 for six consecutive months.
It will be interesting to stand back and look at this decades from now, and walk around it and examine where some boon out all of this came, something like those towns that would never have been sustained, or the alternative careers that could never have taken place if more stable options existed. Good can come out of bad, and the other way around. Every action has a reaction, etc.
But maybe I’m engaging in the game of optimism and renewed expectations. Because self-esteem, decoupled with performance like it was for Gen Y, wants for something. It requires a foundation to be sustained.
Maybe the abyss was the memorial for the Tucson shootings. This is us, cheering through a prayer, melting into the collective, clinging to intangibles, sliding into one force without direction.
Maybe the abyss is right now, happening in Zuccotti Park — a generation of drifters with the human microphone, grasping to recapture fleeting unity. We are the 99%.
Or perhaps the true abyss is this: the flash mob.
The culmination of this would be the London riots, in Philadelphia or Chicago or Atlanta. A combustion of people warping and twisting that impulse for cohesion and purpose, people who just want to watch the society that failed them burn.
Is it in our future? I don’t think so. Then again, we’re special. We can be anything we want to be.