Gen Y waiting for our defining moment

All the videos on YouTube are the same. There is no countdown, or fan fair, just late night TV that cuts to static at 11:59 p.m. A widely known, but ultimately little noticed, event last year was the switch from analogue TV to a purely digital system on June 12, 2009. The newly available frequencies will be used primarily for expanding wireless communication networks. Hooray for smartphones!

Flash back 24 years. Growing up in a thrifty New England household meant I never had cable TV. Instead, while nearly all my friends enjoyed cable, I became an expert at fiddling with bunny ears to catch those now non-existent signals for my Saturday morning cartoons. It was awful.

One unforeseen upside to this nine channel purgatory was an education in syndicated television. That is, the stories of older generations. The value of having seen nearly every episode of shows like M*A*S*H, Leave it to Beaver and All In The Family is an appreciation that the issues of the Boomers and Xers are no longer in Gen Y’s cultural lexicon, right along mimeographs

And thank god!

Further, most of us were too young to understand the real significance of even fairly recent shows like Murphy Brown and Will & Grace, which broke new ground with their portrayal of working women and the terribly controversial issue of gay-ness. To Gen Y these things are just the norm. Strong women and homosexuals on television have never been a “thing” for us the way it was for older generations.

Many important events from our early lives are not really part of our identity either. We never experienced the Cold War, the AIDS pandemic in its full swing here in the U.S., or the economic recession of the late 80s and early 90s. For many of us, 9/11 was our first defining moment. But, at that time the oldest among us were in high school or just graduating from college — and so I ask: how long did we truly live in a pre-9/11 world? I’d argue few Millennials ever really did.

We Millennials understand the world from the 2000s forward. And many of us don’t  see the threads that connect us to the twentieth century. I blame the schools. When the Berlin wall came down, when the “third wave of democracy” was setting Africa on the right track, when globalization was the zeitgeist, we were playing with snap bracelets and Pogs.

Generations are united and defined by their collective experiences, and for Gen Y there isn’t a lot to point at, yet. If anything, we’re still constantly forced to deal with the cultural baggage of our predecessors. Though, what generation doesn’t?

The issues of racism and homosexuality that past generations dealt with have never been a cutting issue for us. Yes, immigration and gay rights are still heated topics here in the U.S., but you look a the numbers and Gen Y isn’t very split on these issues. According to Pew Research: “In their political outlook, they are the most tolerant of any generation on social issues such as immigration, race and homosexuality.”

This isn’t to say that we don’t have our problems, we do. However, we are a group, with experiences, values and issues unique to our time. Gen Y begins in 1978 at the moment when the birth rate begins to increase again, indicating that we are the children of the Baby Boomers. A lot of people dismiss generation theory as silly, but I don’t think so.

We began how the world shaped us. That is, we owe much of our identity and values to the work and struggle of past generations. On the other hand, I think that we are something quite different because we have shed much of their baggage, and now look back on it with some amount of confusion. Our concerns are shaped by the subjects of “now” and “new”.

So go ahead and ask anyone in my generation: “Did you watch the TV go to static?” I bet I can tell you the answer.

Photo by melisdramatic

Author: Jason Potteiger – Associate Editor at TNGG

Jason Potteiger I’m a Suffolk U. grad with degrees in Political Science and Advertising. I like reading both John and Douglas Adams and spending time in the mountains of New Hampshire (where I grew up). These days I call Boston home, but I have aspirations of one day working in Washington, D.C. and New Delhi, India. Subscribe to Jason's Posts via RSS 

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9 Responses to “Gen Y waiting for our defining moment”

  1. Jeff Shattuck

    Um… RECESSION? Hello? I would also add:

    1) neverending war
    2) election of Obama
    3) rise of China
    4) ballooning US debt
    5) health care reform

    I could go on and on!

  2. Jason Potteiger

    I don't think that the switch was our moment, I think that it's a great example of how we're already so digital that it didn't even effect us. It's a big deal for other generations that grew up and were defined by analogue TV. But us, we're all digital.

    In terms of a defining moment, I don't thing there has been one, or that there will even be one big one. In response to Jeff's comment, there certainly have been world changing events going on. But the examples he cites are all VERY recent, and that's sort of my point. From my perspective, our identity is not based on the events of the twentieth century, in fact we have a terribly hard time relating to those. I can't even imagine the America my parents came of age in. I think that's an extremely important point when trying to get into our heads. Instead, for Gen Y our story, our generation, is being formed right now.

  3. Jason Potteiger

    I agree with all your points. What I was getting at is that many of the events of the twentieth century, even major things that I cite which happened in our lifetime, we just can't relate to. We don't understand America from the perspective of the Cold War or even Pre 9/11. Our generation's consciousness is concerned with far different things than those of other generations because the event's they lived through and the culture they know is something that we just can't relate to.

    If I had to pick A moment, I'd probably pick the election of Barack Obama and move on from there. In reality few generations have ONE defining moment. It's the cultural climate, many different events and the way people understand them that defines a generation imo.

  4. Jason Potteiger

    I think you're right there. The numbers show that Gen Y is very concerned about the environment. Further, public opinion drives the political debate, so the fact that we care at all is already making a big difference!

  5. Nate Gerber

    Great insight Jason!

    I have to agree with your premise… Being Canadian (Toronto based), I think your words ring even more true for my community. The Millennial’s are a generation looking for their moment, but we have no idea what it will be.

    Obama’s election certainly was a galvanized moment, and its power was in the hope for structural change that it represented. Nonetheless, from a global perspective, I wonder if Obama happened ‘to us’ rather than through a collective awakening of identity.

    In the west, immigration combined with our digital world has enabled us to become more globally empathic, but our collective will to navigate subsequent institutional change has been compromised by a deeply embedded consumer lifestyle. Watching the G20 fiasco’s here in Toronto a few weeks back was instructive. The call to protest was an unfocused expression of general identity crisis, rather than a centered voicing of a social justice platform. There were many causes with many flags to wave, gathering lots of privileged middle class protesters to sell Starbucks to.

    Moving from our GenY brand of ‘sexy social justice’/icon driven politics to the collective, sustainable social transformation that our generation is anxious for will require a much deeper process of self reflection. I think we’re starting that process now as web technology wrestles with the transition through social web to an emerging ‘collaborative meaning making’ web, a phenomenon where open knowledge repositories such as Wikipedia are transformed into dynamic social architecture collaborations. I think that increased globalism will demand that we ‘have our moment’… but I wonder where and how the leadership will emerge to frame and define what that moment will be.

  6. David

    I certainly give praise to generation y for their belief in diversity of ALL kinds. I myself am among the first of the millenials, having been born in 1979, and one thing I noticed is that the great majority of people my age and younger (and believe it or not, some older folks) either support or are at least indifferent to what I wear (I wear kilts as well as manskirts and a manbag). Of course, there are those in their 20s and early 30s that give me dirty looks, but thankfully they are the exception rather than the rule.


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