America has gotten away from naming generations in ways that convey meaning. Labels like the Lost, Greatest, and Boomer generations have been replaced by X and Y, which describe little more than temporal order.
As a 31-year-old representative of “Generation Y,” also known as the Millenials, I sometimes wonder whether historians will refer to my American generation with any creativity. I think an appropriate label is emerging, but it doesn’t bring me joy to suggest it. My cohort might be called, The Humbled Generation.
My grandparents’ generation is called the greatest, and for the most part this is true. With the exception of feet-dragging on important social advances, mainly civil rights, this war-hardened group that safeguarded for decades America’s security and economic eminence was pretty great.
The baby boom that included my parents is known as privileged and activist. Growing up when American might was unmatched and new Chevrolets kept rolling into the suburbs, boomers found they had time and financial freedom to push the country toward greater social and racial equanimity.
Theirs is an entitled generation, though, that has gleefully dined on federal debt and is now sliding the check across the table to younger folks like me.
The formative years of The Humbled Generation in the 1980s and 1990s were marked by self-esteem coddling and projections of everlasting American economic and military power. We were told that we could do anything, and that our country did everything. We were told that failure was not an option, or at worst, not at all likely.
And we believed it. We came home from school to see the Berlin Wall chipped to pieces on the evening news and the Cold War won. On CNN we watched US forces easily expel Iraq from Kuwait in the early 1990s. We saw the instrumental US role in achieving meaningful agreements in Northern Ireland and the Balkans.
Also that decade we would see American tech companies drive the digital age, further expanding living standards and putting the world we were told was ours at our fingertips.
But the last decade has been rough on my generation. The early tech boom became a bubble, not an empire. Then our country was attacked in spectacular fashion and mired in two wars for most of our adult lives.
Our economy, which we were told would never fail, did indeed fail many of us. The unemployment rate for Americans in their twenties is twice the national average. The same elders who once told us we were special and could handle anything didn’t prepare for uncertainty themselves, and now have no response for those among us who can’t find jobs and are staring down federal debt we’ll likely face the rest of our lives.
Our parents complained in the 80s that our country at times threw good money after bad, but now there’s no good money left. Our capital has been squandered and our debt sold to foreign powers – its integrity downgraded.
The United States will likely have the world’s strongest military as well as more money than any other country for a while, but a less pleasant truth is that the American dream will elude many more Americans of The Humbled Generation than it used to.
Being humbled isn’t all bad. Our cultural icons are almost always humble heroes who beat the odds. Kites rise against the wind. And the way I see it, future Americans might someday look back and recall how our humbled generation, too, was great at certain things.
If we learn from the mess we’ve been dealt, our grandchildren could one day talk about The Humbled Generation that took the lessons of the first years of the 21st century and put them to use.
They might talk about how we traveled the world, learned other languages, and strengthened US diplomacy and security. They may talk about how we made our military might greater by not rushing to use it.
And perhaps most importantly, they may one day talk about how we corralled our country’s runaway spending and paid down the profligacy of our parents. They may talk about how we saved for and weathered uncertainty, instead of depending on bailouts. This is humility we could be proud of.
The world isn’t, as we were led to believe, ours on a string. But maybe knowing this is why we’ll succeed. A Humbled Generation is up next; we’ll see how we do.