How 9/11 Shaped a Generation Just Coming of Age

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As the tenth anniversary of September 11th approaches, writer and blogger Courtney E. Martin reflects on seven ways in which that fateful day shaped the millennial generation of which she is a part.

  1. We are fundamentally practical.
  2. For many of us, 9/11 was a wake-up call about the precious and finite nature of human life. For better or worse, many of us gravitated away from artistic dreams, or romantic notions of living abroad, far from our families, and hunkered down. Even our approaches to social change are often scoffed at by our authority-resisting parents, who see our focus on actionable goals as sometimes less-than-radical.

  3. We are sector agnostic in our good works.
  4. Relatedly, we are known for conceiving of meaningful and world-improving work very widely. Just because one cares about making the world more just, doesn’t mean one becomes a lawyer or a social worker; it might also mean going to business school and becoming a social entrepreneur or becoming a chef and getting involved in the local food movement.

  5. We are distrustful of organized religion and Politics. 
  6. Though we are open to most vocations, we are–according to sociologist Robert Putnam–the least religiously affiliated generation in history, and also largely uninterested in becoming politicians. In part, no doubt, this stems from seeing religion distorted and political leaders let off the hook for profound failures during the post-9/11 era.

  7. We are resilient as a matter of survival.
  8. Two recent studies, one in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and one in Psychology & Health, have proven that there is actual validity to the old adage that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Millenials who have faced national disasters like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, not to mention the economic downturn, have flexed their resilience over and over again.

  9. We think globally and systemically.
  10. Quite obviously, one couldn’t experience the world’s ever contracting quality over the last decade–enhanced by the internet and the connectivity it offers–without conceiving of citizenship in a truly global and interdependent way. We know what we do in Colorado Springs can have a direct effect in what goes on in Cairo.

  11. We innovate when it comes to disaster relief.
  12. Struck by the successes and failures of post-9/11 relief work–from the physical rebuilding to the more amorphous rebuilding of the human spirit–we have contributed much to the field of disaster response. From the pro bono architecture movement that gets better at responding to immediate infrastructure needs to the innovations in crowdsourced mapping that helps rescue workers figure out where people are and what they need, we are changing the way the world experiences trauma. 

  13. We know that multiculturalism is about much more than just tolerance.
  14. Though we grew up with an often wishy washy approach to diversity, highlighted by the notion of “tolerance,” we have rejected that in favor of more rigorous race and class analysis–evidenced by so many astute publications, like Racialicious and Colorlines–and an effort to really face and engage with the most polarizing issues in a civil way. We know too much about the potential outcomes of just “tolerating” one another to do otherwise.

Courtney E. Martin is the co-author of the recently released Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors. You can read more about her work at

Image from Courtney E. Martin’s December 2010 TEDWomen talk.

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