With that caveat, however, the year 1982 is widely accepted as the beginning of the millennial generation. The oldest of us are just hitting our 30th birthday, like I did last month. And as we enter our fourth decade of existence, it seems as good a time as any to reflect on who we are and what we have been through. We're not monolithic; no generation is. But we do have common experiences, and those experiences have shaped our values as a generation. Eventually, we will be America's political and economic leaders; some of us already are. But when we are governors, senators and presidents, what might an America run by millennials look like?
Let's start with who we are. We will be the first generation in some time not to idolize Ronald Reagan; not because we don't respect his political ideology (though that may be the case), but simply because only the oldest of us have any recollection whatsoever of his presidency, and a six-year-old's hazy memories aren't worth much. For us, the Cold War is a part of history that was before our time, not part of the world we grew up in as a day-to-day reality. That's not to say that our geopolitical reality has been any more pleasant; for most of us, the attacks of September 11, 2001 were childhood experiences. Our constant reality since then has been wars and occupations, terror alert codes, recessions, eight years of George W. Bush, and a faith-destroying economic catastrophe. But we'll get to that in a minute.
It has been said that our generation is lazy; that we've refused to grow up. That, the story goes, is why so many of us have returned home after college and given ourselves the moniker of the "boomerang generation." The narrative is that we're entitled: that a generation built on political correctness and praise without performance has made us expect things we don't deserve to receive. We're not content, then, to work hard like the generations that preceded us, and to work our way up the ladder of opportunity; and once we figure out how tough the world actually is, we turn tail and crawl back home to our parents, who knew the value of hard work.
It's a pleasant fiction designed to absolve the previous generation of responsibility from the simple fact that we live in the economy and society they guided and shaped. Far from not knowing the value of hard work and competition, we're a generation where law school graduates compete like mad for the opportunity to ply their trade for free in the face of six figures of unrelenting school debt. Their generation's executives continue to make more than ever off of the increasingly inexpensive labor our generation provides. So yes, our generation has delayed adulthood, but not because we're lazy, or because we don't want the responsibility of marriage and family, but because it takes us so much longer to begin to have the financial stability to consider it.
In that regard our values may be the same, if less achievable. But in others, we couldn't be more different. Generations before us were characterized by a desire to own as large a slice as possible of the isolation they considered paradise, fleeing the denser and more diverse cities to tract homes in ever more distant suburban bedroom communities. Our generation has stopped believing in the idea that we will ever be able to buy a bigger house than we actually need even in the less expensive suburbs—to say nothing of the car that we will need to commute for an hour each way or the increasingly expensive gasoline that we would need to drive it. We, instead, are far more comfortable living in closer proximity with our neighbors, no matter what color their skin is or what their religion is, and sharing a train with them on the way to work we consider ourselves lucky to have.
Older generations may take a look at us as we spend dinner hour unable to separate ourselves from our smartphones and feel that we are an isolated generation because we seem to so rarely talk face to face. But the truth is, our constant use of texting and social media is our way of interconnectedness, for better or for worse: We are used to a life lived in public. We see the experiences of everyone around us from so many different walks of life, and we understand that even could we afford it, a white picket fence in the suburbs could not isolate us, could not insulate us, could not separate us, from the successes and failures of our peers.
Previous generations, at least among the majority, were governed by fear of the other. Our generation knows the other because we see it every day. No amount of censorship can insulate our children from cultural, social and sexual mores of people who are not like us. I don't have any proof, of course, but I believe that when our generation is in charge, we will be unafraid: not just because of our interconnectedness, but because we will have been through the worst fears of terrorism and economic depression, and—we hope—will have come out clean on the other side. It will lead us to build a more collaborative world that values public services like safety nets and transportation infrastructure, rather than one that seeks to hollow them out for private profit while seeking financial isolation from the impending collapse. We'll rebuild this country together, because we know that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.