If you read BusinessWeek a few years ago, you might have been led to believe that Yale’s Class of 2002 was part of “Generation Y,” a reference to our cohort’s search for meaning. Our raison d’etre, said the magazine article, was to cruise shopping malls and buy trendy clothing. If you believed David Brooks’ piece in the Atlantic Monthly last year, the Ivy League Class of 2002 was composed of “Organization Kids,” a new meritocratic elite. We were insulated from the outside world, we were remarkably deferential to authority, we thought nothing of character as an end in itself, and we worked hard in school to ensure ourselves comfortable lives.
But it seems no generation is able to escape a cataclysmic event that changes the very foundations of our understanding of the world. The Yale Class of 1964 looked to the slaying of John F. Kennedy as its turning point, and a previous generation came of age through Pearl Harbor.
Our generation’s cataclysm occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, in the form of the most devastating attack in the history of the United States. Out of those unforgettable infernos high above Manhattan and in northern Virginia, the Class of 2002 became the first graduating class of Generation 9/11.
Though the name “Generation 9/11” might not live on, the events of Sept. 11 and their consequences will, for better or for worse, define our generation.
Yalies, by and large, are fascinated by history. But an event like Sept. 11 spawns far more than historical curiosity — it makes us wonder where history will place our generation and our era.
For a while, it looked like our generation would have the dubious distinction of being remembered as “Generation Hanging Chad.” At the time, the 2000 presidential election was probably the most notable event in our lifetimes. We had only the slightest recollections of the Soviet Union’s dominance over eastern Europe, and our only concept of warfare was the Gulf War, a conflict won before it was even fought.
By mid-morning on Sept. 11, we had a call to action. We had our meaning. Democracy, civilization and human decency were attacked that day. We were challenged to defend not just our lives, but our way of life.
The Yale Daily News editorialized on Sept. 17, 2001, “After Sept. 11, we came of age as a generation. We agreed on an agenda. We faced the same enemy. And now the government is asking us: Will we serve?” The answer: “We must answer the calling of our time — for if we don’t, who will?”
Initially, at least, we began to answer the call. Last fall, throngs of Yale seniors flocked to career fairs featuring employment in public service, including the CIA, FBI and the Peace Corps. We signed up for classes on foreign culture and on terrorism that we might not otherwise have considered.
Inevitably, things have settled down since September. Star-spangled bumper stickers are no longer flying off the shelves. Proud citizens, perhaps weary of sustaining high levels of flag etiquette, have taken their drapeaus down from the gables.
But our generation will never again be quite the same. Even Brooks, who made a valiant attempt to characterize our generation as “Organization Kids,” wrote after Sept. 11 that he sensed a change in Yale students after the attacks — though we were still “incredibly hard-working,” we possessed a sense of inquiry and thoughtfulness that did not exist in us before.
No matter the short-term consequences of Sept. 11, the real test for our generation will come a quarter-century in the future, when the decisions are in our hands. As the Class of 2002 leaves Yale, we should take stock of how we want to shape the world we live in — the world post-Sept. 11.
Tim R. A. Cooper is graduating from Pierson College. He is former news editor for the Yale Daily News.