Was 9/11 your generation-defining event? Or is it the pandemic we’re living through?

A couple, wearing protective masks due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, walk along a path through nearly 3,000 flags, each representing a victim lost on September 11, 2001. (Charles Krupa, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Depending on your age, you get a different question about recent historical events.

For the Greatest Generation, it was about your connection to Pearl Harbor and World War II.

Baby Boomers are asked where they were when they heard that President John Kennedy was assassinated. Or Dr. King.

The defining question for Generation X – generally defined as being born between 1965 and 1980 – is about their memories of Sept. 11, 2001.

Some Millennials – born in the 80s and 90s – will remember the terrorist attacks, and certainly the aftermath: the war in Afghanistan and the killing of Osama bin Laden. For those in high school and college at the time 9/11 was used for lessons of current events or recent history. Many from this generation joined the military and deployed as part of the war or terror. Some didn’t make it back home or are still carrying the trauma in their bodies and minds.

My daughter is among the youngest of Generation Z – born in the late 90s through early 2000s. She remembers seeing pictures of burning buildings on TV. We quickly realized we shouldn’t watch the coverage with her in the room.

But how could you not watch? We were witnessing history.

The latest generation grew up in a post 9/11 world: at first a unified (at least if you weren’t Muslim), patriotic United States. Fear of another attack leads to wide acceptance of a new layer of security in travel and at public events. For anyone under age 25, it’s all they’ve ever known.

But a few years later, the housing bubble burst and the country was plunged into recession. People began to retreat to their ideological corners -- perhaps further apart than ever.

Another radical divide came with the revolution in technology. Millennials and beyond grew up with computers, but 9/11 was still primarily a televised event. Smartphones and instant connection and communications wherever/whenever wouldn’t happen for a few years.

Entering the 2000s, social media, instant messaging and a proliferation of online news sources became the norm. Would the country, the world ever experience a communal event again?

Yes, but not in the same way.

Early last year, coronavirus changed everything. It actually touched more people than any of those previous generation-defining events. While only 12% of Americans actually caught COVID-19 – so far -- life as we know it was turned upside down for almost everyone.

For most of the youngest among us, going into lockdown means isolation from friends and setbacks in both emotional and academic development. For those a little older, graduations were either canceled or virtual, and the prospects of getting a job plummeted.

Research done early in the pandemic shows those between ages 18 and 23 were hit the hardest.

A March 2020 Pew Research survey found that “half of older Gen Zers reported that they or someone in their household had lost a job or taken a cut in pay because of the outbreak, significantly higher than the shares of Millennials (40%), Gen Xers (36%) and Baby Boomers (25%) who said the same.”

And this generation’s defining moment wasn’t a moment. We’re still living with it 18 months later. While it appears we may be cresting our third (some say our fourth) surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, medical experts are concerned the mu variant or something we haven’t even heard of yet could create another spike in the fall or winter.

The polarization of political rhetoric and splintered media giving sometimes wildly different information all presented as the truth is slowing our nation’s recovery. The fact that only 64% of adults in the United States are fully vaccinated nearly six months after the free shots became available to everyone speaks volumes about our lack of unity.

It’s way too early to know the long-term impact of the pandemic on Gen Z and the rest of us. A decade or two after this pandemic is under control, others will analyze what we’ve learned. Hopefully, both our children and our country will be healthy and work together on the challenges of their generation.


About the Author:

Digital election producer in 2022. He created WJXT.com in 1995 and managed The Local Station's website through 2021.