Through prism of tragedy, generations are defined

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Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Sunday. Nov. 22, 1963, the assassination of JFK. Ask Americans who recall these dates, and they can tell you where they were, what they were doing, how it felt – and how old they were at the time.

Big events, and the mood shifts they trigger, change our lives. They compel us as generations to interact with history. By the responses of parents and leaders, the collective personalities of older generations are revealed. And by the impressions gained by youth, the sensibilities of younger generations are shaped – which, given time, will determine how the nation responds to the next big event.

We now reflect on the legacy of another big event. Few will ever forget the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Almost certainly, it defines another meeting between history and generations whose long-term meaning is only beginning to emerge.

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For those in the fading "G.I. Generation" – who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II, and are now in their late '70s on up – 9/11 is an end-of-life affirmation. America is experiencing a replay of their adrenaline-filled launch into adulthood. Once again, it is a time for big institutions to play grand roles, for citizens to reaffirm their trust in nationhood, for neighborhoods to band together, for people to talk less and do more. From the likes of George Shultz or Henry Kissinger, we hear plain-spoken directions about how to project American power. Having so long regarded them as our "hero" generation, we thirst all the more for a new young generation of heroes now that we see them pass away.

For the retiring "Silent Generation," now in their '60s and '70s, 9/11 is worrisome. Polls confirm that these World War II-era children have aged into the most war- and casualty-averse Americans, the most ardent supporters of the UN, and the biggest advocates of committee-scripted process. They're the first generation not to have produced a US president. They've cultivated a gray-flannel reputation not as strong leaders but as the consummate technocrats and mediators of a civic order built by their more powerful next-elders. It makes them feel – as Joseph Nye, the Harvard scholar, wrote recently – that "America does not understand the complexities and ambiguities of its own power."

The most conspicuous voices of caution are coming from the likes of Colin Powell, Larry Eagleburger, Brent Scowcroft, and Dick Armey. Even prowar Silents like Jim Baker or Pat Moynihan prefer we follow a process of communication and consensus with allies. This generation is distressed by "good versus evil" choices, reminding them of the worst nightmares of their childhood – the internment of minorities, the need for blind obedience, the rigid gender roles, and the trashing of civil liberties.

For the "Boomer Generation," now in their '40s and '50s, 9/11 is empowering. All their lives, Boomers have always believed that values come first. Now that they dominate national leadership, they're framing policies that focus on character, culture, goodness, and justice – high principles that often rule out peaceable compromise. The first Boomer president, Bill Clinton, once complained that history provided no great crisis against which he could prove his mettle. Now history has dealt such a crisis to George Bush who, as even his detractors concede, has become a more effective leader now that he sees in 9/11 as "a moment we must seize to change our culture and overcome evil with greater good."

Of all today's generations, Boomers are the most prowar. From Desert Storm to Kosovo to the war on terror, polls have shown Boomers to be as much as 10 percentage points more likely than older or younger Americans to support the use of force and risk broader conflicts to remove evildoers abroad. Boomer editorialists like Charles Krauthammer, Michael Kelly, and Bill Kristol are vehemently leading the call for war. Though some Boomers on college faculties are trying to resurrect something akin to the anti-Vietnam War movement. As a whole, the Boom Generation appears to be reenacting what British historian Arnold Toynbee once called "the long war cycle," the tendency of the generation born after the last great war to declare the next great war as elder leaders.

For Generation X, on the brink of midlife, 9/11 is disorienting. Before this event, Gen-Xers voted lightly, maneuvered in the economy like free agents, and shared a mind-set that good deeds are done by and for individuals, not by or for nations. Now that America is under attack – not persons who happen to be American, but America itself – their highly exposed, fast-paced, unplanned, loyalty-free lifestyle suddenly feels unsafe. Polls show that of all generations, Gen-Xers were the most deeply affected by 9/11 in their living habits, finances, and career choices. Overlapping with the dot-com bust and recession, the year since 9/11 has seen a deceleration for Gen-Xers. A sharply rising number are getting married, having kids and spending more time with them, buying and fixing houses. We've heard more from the Lisa Beamers, and less from the Allan Iversons.

On a personal level, Gen X was hit hard by 9/11, having suffered most of the casualties, and provided most of the firefighter, police, and "let's roll" passenger heroes. Most of the soldiers who signed wills and exchanged wedding vows before shipping off to fight in Afghanistan were Gen X. The 9/11 aftermath is an opportunity for this generation to cast an anchor, to reengage in the history of a nation whose future matters more than they once thought.

For the post-X Millennial Generation, those born since 1982 who now fill grade schools and the first two years of college, 9/11 is a defining moment. At a personal level, 9/11 affected them the least, since their own world endured a similar, if smaller-scale, "terrorism" crisis back in 1998-99, with the wave of Columbine-style school shootings. Polls show that kids have been the least surprised by new security measures since they're the most used to having ID cards examined, luggage searched, and jokes screened by authorities. Today's kids trust and confide in authorities, set up Web cams in their rooms, and keep in constant electronic contact with parents and friends. For better or worse, privacy isn't a big issue among teens, and challenges to civil liberties are less of a worry than to older people.

Even before 9/11, the budding character of these new youth was making itself clear, with high trust in authority; rising achievement in math and science; and falling rates of crime, teen pregnancy, and substance abuse. Energized by a sense of their collective potential, large numbers of Millennials had already begun participating in community service. It was almost as though America was preparing these kids for some great mission. But what?

Along came 9/11, which may be history's answer to this question.

• William Strauss and Neil Howe are authors of 'The Fourth Turning' and 'Millennials Rising.'

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