Millennial generation: Time to step up

On Facebook, Linked-in, Friendster, MySpace, and a dozen other social-networking sites, you’ll find millions of members of the “millennial generation” putting their best foot forward – or at least a foot forward. Kudos for the crazy dance move, climbing K2, and totally digging vampires. Hats off to the superstars and the hearty-partyers. Here’s wishing you success in meeting up, networking, and job hunting.

Now that we know who you are, how about telling us your plan for the next 25 years?

I ask because economists and business people are concerned that the recession that just blew through may have broken something fundamental. The University of Michigan tracks consumer sentiment. Consumers make up 70 percent of economic activity. It has been 25 years since consumers were as pessimistic as they are now. Some think the business cycle won’t work the way it used to because of the pounding we took last year – especially us baby boomers, who were supposed to be moving into prime spending years before the crisis of ’08 but instead will be working and saving just to restore what we lost.

It’s up to you, millennials.

Let’s set the wayback machine to visit the last recession. The headlines were grim. Banks were failing, real estate was in a tailspin, businesses cratering. Ronald Reagan labeled the Soviet Union the “focus of evil in the modern world.” A scary made-for-TV movie called “The Day After” portrayed the horrible consequences of nuclear war. Suicide bombers devastated the US Embassy in Beirut and a Marine barracks, killing hundreds. A Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 was shot down by a Soviet fighter jet. AIDS was spreading unchecked. Crack was the new menace. A report titled “A Nation at Risk” described rampant mediocrity in American schools.

Ugh. By late 1983, the recession was ebbing but economists and business leaders were worried. The World War II generation, which built the world of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s was slowing down. Would their idealistic but notoriously self-indulgent kids step up? Was something fundamental broken?

It turned out that, as often happens, a new world was quietly being built. Mitch Kapor launched the Lotus 1-2-3 software program. Michael Dell was cobbling together computers in his dorm room. In Chicago, the first cellphone network went live; you could make a call if you owned a clunky, $3,000 handset. Steve Jobs popularized the mouse and the pull-down menu, and then, with marketing flair that is still remarked on, premièred the Macintosh with his anti-Orwellian “1984” ad.

You could make a case that our last quarter century rode on a wave of invention, creativity, and excess unleashed in the dark days of the early ’80s. It may be that we can’t do it again, that the excesses of the past 25 years messed up the American dream. Given the environmental impact of American consumption, some moderation seems in order. Given rampant overleverage, more savings seems necessary. Will confidence return, will there be a new 25-year upswing?

Just as the baby boomers were coming into their own in the early ’80s, millennials are building the next future. They have their quirks and frivolities, like the generation they are echoing, but they are in general more environmentally conscious, more wired, and more globally connected than their predecessors.

What are they cooking up? Hard to say. But like every generation that came before, you can be certain they are cooking.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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