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The 9/11 Generation

How 9/11 Shaped the Millennial Generation

SOURCE: AP/Chao Soi Cheong

Smoke pours off one of the towers of the World Trade Center as flames explode from the second one as it is struck by a plane Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

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My first day of high school was September 11, 2001. In an all-school assembly, a teacher stood to break the news and explain the significance of the attacks. His somber tone frightened us and as we were dismissed I clung to my friends out of fear and complete confusion. In the 10 years since I have learned that my experience was typical of most in my generation. Across the country young people were in school when the attacks happened—some in elementary school, others in high school or college—and 9/11 literally became part of our education.

This Sunday, America will pause to remember those lost on that day and to reflect on how the country has changed over the last decade. The millennial generation—those who came of age during this time and have grown up in a post-9/11 America—possess unique insights and views based on our place in history.

Millennials in a 2009 survey cite the attacks on 9/11 as the most important influence shaping the attitudes and beliefs of our generation. But what lessons have we learned and how might those who will become our future leaders implement these lessons as we chart the course of our country in the years ahead?

While our generation is still forming our views, there are a few ways in which we have already grown. Below is a snapshot of recent polling of our views. CAP also reached out to a diverse group of millennials to document our memories, our lessons learned, and our hopes for the futures and are captured in the video “Millennial: Growing up in a Post-9/11 World.” Some of these thoughts are also included below. 

A snapshot of the generation

Millennials—generally classified as those who born between 1978 and 2000—make up America’s largest generation. Depending on how the parameters are set, we are as much as 30 percent larger than the Baby Boomers. We are also the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history—61 percent are white, 19 percent Hispanic, 14 percent black, and 5 percent Asian. Millennials are also the most diverse generation in terms of place of birth and religion.

Millennials are also well connected through social media. Often dubbed the Facebook generation, 83 percent of young people utilize social media and other internet-based communication tools to easily connect with our fellow Americans and our communities. Millennials are more likely to identify as Democrats and hold traditional progressive values about economic and social inequalities, belief in government, and multilateral foreign policy.

Patriotism

Immediately following the September 11 attacks, a wave of patriotism swept the nation. Citizens volunteered their time and blood to help those in need in New York City and Washington D.C. And across the nation, Millennials witnessed— and took part in—the immediate unity that often arises in times of crisis and uncertainty. Our parents displayed flags on cars, in shop windows, and homes. Teachers and educational institutions, from grade schools to universities, set up informal and more structured discussions about the impact of the attacks and what it meant to be American. Many of our leaders spoke of the resiliency and strength of the union.

On May 2 of this year, when the death of Osama bin Laden was announced, many Millennials took to the streets to display similar signs of patriotism. From gatherings in front of the White House to campuses at Indiana State to Boston University, students waved flags and chanted “USA.” For many, bin Laden was the generational villain and his death, if only symbolically, was a victory for America.

In the years between 2001 and 2010, however, Millennials have expressed a kind of patriotism that tends to be different from our elders. For example, polls show that far fewer young Americans than older ones believe it is unpatriotic to criticize leaders during war. Millennials, compared to older generations, believe more in the role of government and are far less skeptical of government.

Millennial patriotism has translated into increased civic engagement and volunteerism. UCLA’s annual American Freshman survey found that volunteerism is unusually high among the generation. Eighty-three percent of entering freshman in 2005 volunteered during high school, 71 percent on a weekly basis. We are also more politically engaged. In both the 2004 and 2008 elections, there were significant increases in voters between the ages of 18 and 29.

Civil liberties and security

In the 10 years since 9/11, America has justified, in the name of security, the limitation of civil liberties through policies such as the Patriot Act. Immigration policy has also become more restrictive and entry lists are increasingly backlogged for families, workers, and refugees.

Millennials have lived most of our adult lives in this world of increased security measures. Very few remember a time before the existence of the Transportation Security Administration or when family could pick up passengers at the gate after a flight. Color-coded threat levels and signs along interstate highways, as well as on buses and metros, that say “if you see something, say something” have become commonplace reality.

Millennials, however, see alternatives to these measures. A plurality do not believe we need to compromise civil liberties in order to protect the United States from terrorism. Millennials are also less accepting of racial profiling—as documented by recent Pew polling that found we are less supportive of extra airport checks on people who appear to be of Middle Eastern descent. And Millennials are much less supportive of further restrictions on immigration than older generations. Many spoke of the blinding impact of fear. Peter Nyger, age 28, believes that in the last 10 years “instead of embracing our liberties, [America] sacrificed them in the hopes of a safer society.”

This isn’t to say that the Millennials are immune to security fears or that we do not feel vulnerable to future terrorism. Harleen Gambir, age 18, shared the vulnerability she felt living in post-9/11 world. “Dealing with this new reality is something that our generation is going to have to deal with. From now on there is never going to be a complete defeat of the people who want to harm us.” Nearly 85 percent of respondents in a Brookings survey of Millennials said they couldn’t envision a point in their lives when terrorism would no longer be a danger. Yet we tend to view the balance between security and other issues differently than our elders. In the same study, while Millennials cited terrorism as the most important future challenge, they also gave top priority to climate change, nuclear proliferation, and global poverty.

International relations

Fear or anger hasn’t sent the Millennial generation into seclusion, despite the fact many Millennials believe that the U.S. is no longer globally respected. In fact, Millennials, in spite of or in response to the 9/11 attacks, are more eager than our predecessors to engage with other cultures first hand and some have embraced opportunities to be a more global generation. Nick, age 26, felt 9/11 was the catalyst that incorporated the generation into a global society. “It’s the event that connected us to the rest of the world…We learned to look at ourselves differently as an actor on the world’s stage, and not just as an individual nation.”

Millennials are reaching out to cultures abroad. More Millennials study abroad compared to previous generations and interest in nontraditional destinations has grown as more students study outside of Western Europe. In only the first academic year following 9/11, participation in abroad programs jumped 8.8 percent. Although many expected study abroad participation to Islamic countries to drop after 9/11, enrollment rose 127 percent from 2002 to 2006, according to studies from the Institute of International Education.

Scholarship of foreign languages has also diversified. Due to federal government incentive programs and a general increase in curiosity, more students learn Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Punjabi, Turkish, Indonesian, Hindi, and Bengali than in the past. This trend isn’t unprecedented. In response to the Cold War, government supported language studies led 30,000 or more American university students to Russians courses each year. Regardless of the incentive, however, the increased exposure to the Middle East, North Africa, and to the 1.2 billion person Muslim world by America’s young people is sure to influence the country in the years to come.

Although our generation has lived most of our adult lives in a country at war, we have a different experience with military service than previous generations. Just 2 percent of Millennial males are military veterans. In comparison, 6 percent of the Generation X men and 13 percent of Baby Boomer men were veterans at comparable stages of their life cycle.

While Millennials consider themselves patriotic, according to 2007 polling, almost 70 percent say they would be unwilling to join the U.S. military. In fact, in general, millennials are more likely to reject the primacy of military force in fighting terrorism or keeping America safe. Millennials share a more progressive stance on international affairs, oriented toward a multilateral and cooperative foreign policy. The generation is less supportive of remaining in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tolerance

Since 9/11, attitudes toward Muslims and Islam have become more negative. At the same efforts to increase knowledge of the religion have also increased. Millennials are less accepting of the first trend and more engaged in the second.

Anti-Islam sentiment spiked in the year following 9/11 and has jumped again in the last two years. Today, local communities fear the building of mosques, states question the practice of Sharia, and political dialogue and election rhetoric is increasingly inflammatory and Islamophobic. Younger Americans are much more sensitive to this unequal treatment of Muslims. Forty-eight percent of Millennials believe Muslims are unfairly targeted compared to 27 percent of adults age 65 or older who believe the same thing. Younger people are also much more knowledgeable of Muslims and Islam, more tolerant of religious diversity, and of immigrants in general. The young, according to a Pew poll released last week, are roughly twice as likely to be troubled by the fact that Muslims are singled out for increased government surveillance and monitoring.

Many of these trends can be attributed to a natural curiosity and a concerted educational campaign that has given rise to more education about Islam and Muslim-majority cultures in the last 10 years. In many ways, Millennials have been the recipients, through our elementary and university classrooms, of this increased intercultural and interfaith education.

The study of religion has increased 22 percent in the last decade, according to the American Academy of Religion. Similar increases have occurred in the number and diversity of religion-related degrees offered. Between 2000 and 2005 alone, the number of college courses on Islam and Hinduism nearly doubled. Religion departments have expanded across the country from University of Texas to Ohio State and Georgia State.

This increased interest in religious scholarship and Islam is a promising sign for the future as polls reveal that those who are more educated about Islam and Muslims are also more tolerant of Muslims Americans.

In fact, this year more than 400 college campuses accepted President Barack Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, committing to a year of interfaith service and programming on campus.

Conclusion

Millennials are patriotic and believe in America’s institutions and the democratic process, which demands civic participation and the ability of free speech, even against leadership. The generation is also more tolerant and welcoming of different people and more eager to engage in the world beyond our borders.

Why is it important to examine what Millennials have learned from the 9/11 attacks and America’s response to it? It is clear that Millennials will one day govern the country, but our impact on America occurs long before we take the reins of leadership. In the 2016 presidential elections, Millennials will make up at least one-third of the eligible voter electorate. How this generation views the world and America’s polices 15 years after 9/11 will no doubt influence our choice of leadership. This anniversary we can begin to see how these worldviews are forming.

Eleni Towns is a Research Assistant with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

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