How will the 21st century reshape American lives?

Events of the previous century helped build the country and bring it close to breaking point

Unemployed men line up outside a Great Depression-era soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone. The storefront sign reads "Free Soup, Coffee and Doughnuts for the Unemployed." (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
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In his 2008 book The Way We'll Be, the pollster John Zogby used his decades-long work to observe and define the values and worldviews that are unique to different age groups of Americans. It wasn't their biological age that was determinate; it was the life experiences – the defining events and traumatic moments that have impacted the nation – that shaped their views, their values, and their sense of future possibilities. And while this is true for every generation in every country, it's worth looking at how this played out in the lives of Americans over the past 100 or so years.

Those born in the early part of the 20th century were shaped by the two world wars that bracketed the Great Depression. These dramatic events left scars, to be sure, but they also altered people's outlook and behaviour. Because that generation knew hardship and loss, they scrimped and saved in their struggle to achieve security and stability in their lives and those of their offspring. The shared sacrifices that accompanied the wars also fuelled a patriotic fervour, a belief in government as a constructive agent for change and a commitment to national service.

My generation, which includes those who were born in the 1940s and 50s, lived through the Cold War and the so-called Red Scare. In school, there were regular drills where students were required to hide under their desks to protect themselves from nuclear attacks. This, of course, provided no protection, but it did create a powerful fear both of "the bomb" and the communists who they were told might attack them.

Then came the Vietnam War and the military draft, which compelled millions of young men to fight in a conflict that could never be won. Reaction to Vietnam and the draft spawned an anti-war movement that divided the nation and shattered the Cold War notion of "patriotism". Simultaneous with the transformative impact of the war was the rise of the civil rights movement, which not only saw advances in rights for African Americans, but also created a growing awareness of racial injustice among many in the majority-white community. And finally, that generation was rocked by the assassinations of former president John F Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King Jr, and the fall of another president, Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign in disgrace. The trauma created by these momentous events altogether left the country in shock that ultimately challenged the dominant political and social culture that had held sway for a generation.

The next generation came of age during a period that began with relative calm. The Cold War had ended, with America feeling that it had emerged as the victorious sole superpower. But there were also problems: partisan politics became bitter, economic disparities grew and racial injustices continued to boil. Yet, for nearly a decade and a half, many lived with a renewed sense of promise and hope in the future.

This calm was shattered by the 9/11 terror attacks and the fear and national trauma that followed. Americans didn't just watch the attack on New York's World Trade Centre. They lived and felt it personally, creating fear and feelings of vulnerability. This was followed by the two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the steep price they exacted in lost lives, innocence and prestige. In their effort to recreate the patriotic fervour that sustained national unity during the world wars and the Cold War that followed, ideologues in the Bush administration sought to elevate first Al Qaeda and then Saddam Hussein and the Iranian regime as existential threats. As the wars dragged on, however, what became clear was that the US was no longer the singular superpower. The country was broken. Cynicism and division replaced patriotism.

Smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Centre after hijacked planes crashed into the towers in 2001. AP Photo

Then came the Great Recession of the late 2000s. In just a few months, unemployment doubled, some Americans lost their entire life's savings, and one in five home owners were faced with foreclosure on their mortgaged homes. During this moment of national angst, Barack Obama was elected president with a message of hope and change. He succeeded for a time in inspiring many, but was soon undercut by a divisive campaign with subtle and not-so-subtle themes of racial resentment and racially infused fear of his "otherness". This campaign gave way to deeper and now dysfunctional partisan polarisation, xenophobia and a decline in public confidence in once-revered institutions, ultimately paving the way for the election of Donald Trump.

Whether it will be possible to recreate a sense of national purpose and unity remains to be seen

With this backdrop, one cannot help but wonder what moments and events that will shape and/or scar the lives of our grandchildren? Over the past week, conversations with my children gave me some answers.

My daughter told me that a classmate of one of my granddaughters recently boasted of how during an "active shooter drill", he had secured the "best hiding place" – one where he would never be found by a gunman. These drills are, apparently, a common feature in schools that children now accept as routine. And why wouldn't they? With mass shootings occurring almost daily and an average of two school shootings each month, it is felt that such measures are in order. Add to this, the deepening racial divide and the mass movements that erupted in response to wanton police and vigilante violence.

Now, moreover, there is the toll being taken by Covid-19. Normal life has been disrupted for the past two years. For the greater part of this period, children, at different stages of development, were denied needed interaction and social development – not to speak of the impact it has had on their learning. And finally, there is the partisan anger, the weaponisation of the hatred of "others", and the vulgarity of the Trump era and its residual effects on America's political and social culture.

These era-shaping developments will have a far-reaching impact on the generation that is coming of age in the third decade of this century. How they play out and whether, in this context, it will be possible to recreate a sense of national purpose and unity remain to be seen.

Published: February 03, 2022, 4:00 AM