In contrast to many other generations still living, Millennials struggle with a sense of purpose, a single unifying experience to bring them together in a noble way.

For several years in my Composition I & II classes at the University of Central Florida, I assigned a short essay in which students were asked to write about the “defining moment of their generation.” Make it something that specifially affected your generation, I said. One event that changed the way your generation lives, or that made your generation into what it is today. Think of movie releases (Lord of the Rings? Saw?), think of CD releases, think of major news events, think of celebrity deaths, think of speeches. Get creative!

The first semester, a great majority of the students predictably wrote about 9/11: where they were, what they were doing, who they knew in New York, or (most common) why this particular day was important, and how this day impacted the world. The essays were lifeless, emotionless, all of them an easy answer to the prompt I’d given…and likely no different than the essay they might have written for the SAT or the FCAT or some other standardized test. In no way did any of these students actually discuss how the day impacted their generation, their sensibilities, their day-to-day habits, their personalities (except in the most hyperbolic of essays, which tried to force super-dramatic “I WILL NEVER FORGET!”-style conclusions).

I’m convinced that essay-grading–if nothing else–makes you super-conscious to patterns, whether you’re noticing the most common punctuation mistakes, spelling errors, flaws in logic or structure, or even (as in this case) laziness of thought. You’re forced to read through 75 or 100 straight essays, and you cringe each time you read the same terrible opening line (“Websters Dictionary defines courage as…” or “Every generation has a day that will forever define them…”), and you cringe each time you encounter the same exact topic. By the fiftieth 9/11 essay, you start to go crazy. Write about something else, damn it! And if you’re going to write about 9/11, say something different! When a student writes something obvious and lame, you mourn the minutes that you’ve lost in reading it.

I should have seen it coming, I know, but still I thought that my students would surprise me. Maybe someone would argue that Y2K was a defining moment, or the Janet Jackson – Justin Timberlake nipple scandal!

Nope. Just 9/11 essays. And so I changed the essay topic the next semester: we would still write about the most defining moment of their generation, but now I banned 9/11 as a response. “September 11, 2001 is a defining moment for our entire nation, for the entire world,” I said. “It didn’t necessarily change your generation in any way different than it changed someone who was 30, or 40.” The students argued. How could I take away 9/11, the (suddenly they became heated) most defining moment of their generation! It was theirs, theirs, theirs! But one need only listen to a Rudy Guilliani speech or any assorted FOX News broadcast (Hannity, O’Reilly, Palin, you pick it) to see my point. 9/11 might have been the most memorable event of their lifetimes, but everyone wants it to be a defining moment, and yet none of my students were quite able to say how it defined them.

“Think about moments that might have unified you as a generation, or that gave you a sense of purpose,” I said. “For better or worse.”

They stared back blankly. Purpose?

“Think of Pearl Harbor, and what that did for the G.I. Generation,” I said. “Think of the JFK assassination, or the Kent State shootings. The end of the Camelot years at the White House, or the start of the social revolution! Generations discovering how they want to change the world, or how their perceptions are all wrong!”

I was on a roll. But they kept staring blankly. “I want to write about 9/11,” someone said.

“Do you want to write about 9/11?” I asked. “Or do you just not have anything else to write about?”

No answer.

And that was precisely my point. In order for a generation to have a defining moment, there’s got to be real passion, real fire. Real anger, or real happiness. Real joy, or real sadness. When it comes to 9/11, I don’t imagine that there isn’t real emotion still, but I don’t imagine any teenager or college student standing up and saying, “This was the day I realized something very important. This was the day we all–as a generation–came together. This was our day. Yes, you saw it happen. But it was our day.” For many Gen-Xers, that day might have been the Challenger explosion, or the rise of the grunge rock era, or (for very young Gen-Xers, or the oldest Millennials) the Colombine shootings. The Colombine shootings, after all, were certainly mourned by an entire nation…but they penetrated high school and middle school students to their very souls. If you were 45, you might be worried for your son or daughter, and you might be upset at how different the world is today vs. when you were in school…but if you were 16, school would never be the same, friendships would never be the same, life would never be the same. And the changes you were experiencing could never be fully understood by someone in a different generation. That is a defining moment.

“No 9/11 papers,” I said. “Think harder.”

And still I received a handful of 9/11 papers, most of them beginning (predictably) with the line, “I know you said we weren’t allowed to write about this, but how can I say that any other event is more important?” Again, that word “important.”

My main point, of course, is not that 9/11 is unimportant.

But will we see 9/11 become the main focus of Millennial Literature over the next twenty years? Will we see the shadows of the towers in the first great novels? Will we see characters who still struggle to cope with lost fathers or brothers, who still can’t handle the New York skyline without the World Trade Center? Will we see the Millennial Generation’s version of Oliver Stone create a 9/11 film (a la JFK or Platoon or even Nixon)? This is all hypothetical, of course, but I don’t think it will happen. I don’t think that Millennials–worn out from fifteen or twenty years of political exploitation of that tragic day–will want to touch it (in fact, Oliver Stone and Michael Moore have already made 9/11 movies…will anyone even be interested in 9/11 literature in fifteen years? will anything be left unsaid?). After all, critics and commentators have been reporting the death of the 9/11 novel since…well…pretty much, since the months after the event itself, when some predicted there could never be a great work of art, and now others are predicting that the run of 9/11 art is at its end.

See Anis Shivani’s “Announcing the Death of the 9/11 Novel.”

Maybe the Millennials will write novels and direct movies about George W. Bush or Dick Cheney, about the lasting effects of the PATRIOT Act, about the invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq (see Generation Kill as an example of what some authors and filmmakers have already done, here). Maybe the Millennials will even write about how they wished they would have joined the military after 9/11 (as their grandparents had after Pearl Harbor), or about how 9/11 should be their shared cultural moment, but it was appropriated and over-used by their elders, leaving them desensitized.

What is undeniable at this point, though, is that the Millennials have not yet found their rallying cry, have not yet united behind any particular purpose. Maybe they never will. Maybe their legacy is, quite simply, that they are the most fragmented of generations in their purpose. How can a generation ever unite when that generation is being asked to stand behind a thousand different causes (something I also discuss in the “over-programmed” section)? Millennials suffer from “hyperlink syndrome,” caught in a new web loop each day, unable to commit to any one idea: call it ADD of purpose.

Take a look at a typical facebook page. Take a look at all of the causes and charities that the average young user will support. Ask: which is most important? Ask: has this user actually acted upon any of these causes?

This is not an indictment of facebook or of Millennials. But the reality is this: just like the 250-channel cable service to which I subscribe, when you’ve got unlimited options, it takes a lot more effort to get me to settle on a single show. There’s always something else on, and it could always be better than what I’m currently watching. This is the Millennial struggle for purpose…will they be remembered (years from now) for uniting to end slavery, or uniting to end unfair labor practices, or uniting to earn women the vote, or uniting to win World War II, or…will they be remembered instead for their lack of unifying purpose, or their constant search for purpose in a world that they now recognize (in ways that other generations did not) can never be completely crusaded? Is this the first generation to grow up in so cynical that they will be discouraged from trying to change the world?

Again, this is conjecture.

The better question is not how the Millennials will be remembered, but how will the Millennials remember and represent themselves?

Books that explore this conflict of purpose:

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