Meet Generation Disaster

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The lawn outside the US Capitol covered with 7,000 pairs of empty shoes to memorialize the 7,000 children killed by gun violence since the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2018 (Saul Loeb / Getty)

Last night, I watched the first episode of the Hulu/National Geographic documentary on 9/11. It’s made in collaboration with the 9/11 Museum, which has allowed the filmmakers to recreate the day using hours of donated footage — from tourists, from firefighters, from others on the ground. It’s astonishing, truly heart-stopping. I don’t think I moved once during the entire hour.

I know not everyone wants to see something, anything, like this. I absolutely, 100% get it. There are traumas I never wish to revisit, certainly not in vivid documentary form. For me, it feels like bearing witness — even more so because this documentary vivifies what, for the last twenty years, has mostly existed in my mind at a remove.

I was a junior in college on the West Coast in 2001; I learned about a plane hitting the towers from a random student emailing the all-campus listserve at 7:30 in the morning. I knew it was a national moment of trauma, but for years, I didn’t know anyone who’d lost anyone, or even been there the day the towers fell. That changed with time, particularly after I moved to New York, but what this documentary does is place you on the ground, forging an indelible empathy with anyone who was there that day, even if miles away. The confusion, the worry, the abject horror of it all — you feel it.

That day was a fulcrum in American life. It radicalized people. It intensified a series of waves of ongoing waves of Islamophobia. It temporarily beatified Rudy Guiliani. It led to the deaths of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans. It dramatically changed people’s lives — even, as we’ll see, in ways that will take years to understand.

It changed Karla Vermeulen’s life. She was 31 and living in lower Manhattan at the time of the attacks, and 9/11 prompted her to switched careers — from journalism to psychology. She now serves as the Deputy Director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health and works as an associate professor at SUNY New Paltz. I wanted to talk to Karla about her new book, Generation Disaster, because it doesn’t focus on people like me or her. Instead, she studies how the ramifications of 9/11, combined with financial and climate and gun-violence catastrophes, have shaped the generation for whom 9/11 itself really was an abstraction: something they were either too young to remember or which serves as one of their first, defining memories.

Generation Disaster is and is not a book about 9/11 itself. It’s about trauma, and how that shapes us — as kids, as parents, as a community. And amidst the memorializations of this week, I think that’s something worth sitting with.

Can you tell us broadly who ‘Generation Disaster’ is — and why you think it’s a useful tool for thinking about a group of people?

The group I’ve dubbed Generation Disaster were emerging adults, defined as ages 18 to 29, at the time I was writing the book — so basically those born between 1989 and 2001. I freely acknowledge that those are arbitrary bookends for the cohort, but that’s really true of most generational labels. Sure, the Baby Boom described an actual demographic trend, but all of the subsequent names (Generation X, Millennials, Generation Z) are just social constructs with no basis in biology or anything empirical, so why not create my own new designation?

This particular slice of the population, which includes roughly the younger half of Millennials and the older half of Gen Z, are distinguished by the fact that their childhood or early adolescence occurred in the immediate wake of the attacks of 9/11, when there was significant societal and political disruption, most of which has never really abated.

Some of the stressors this group grew up with:

  • Whether or not they remember the actual events of 9/11, they can’t clearly recall a time when Americans were not conscious of the risk of another terrorist attack at home, or a time when the United States wasn’t at war abroad

  • Many have seen peers or older relatives enter military service, or have done so themselves (in some cases because they had no other employment options), perhaps to return with physical or psychological wounds.

  • Throughout their lives, they’ve been exposed to increasingly dire reports about how climate change may affect them personally, and they’ve experienced its impact, directly or via the media, in a series of major hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, droughts, and other natural disasters.

  • They have also been exposed to reports of a relentless series of mass shootings in schools and other public settings, often committed by — as well targeting — members of their own generation.

  • Their childhood and adolescence occurred during a period of serious economic recession and slow recovery that may have robbed their family of assets and limited their expectations for their own future careers, while they watched the income and wealth gaps grow between the rich and everyone else.

  • They entered into adulthood during a period of extreme political strife and internal conflict within the nation – and for some, within their own families – and they’ve lived through the election and reign of a highly divisive president, as well as witnessing and often participating in developing protest movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.

All of these events are depicted and discussed non-stop in mass and social media, amplifying political conflicts and distorting perceptions of disasters’ actual frequency and people’s degree of personal risk of exposure. And, in a pattern that makes me furious, older adults and members of the media regularly accuse the group of alleged character flaws that are supposedly shared by the entire generation, judging them as “entitled,” “lazy,” and “narcissistic” — labels that my research indicates many of the members of this generation appear to have internalized. And now they’re living through a global pandemic.

Every generation has its experiences, individual or collective, that open their eyes to the fact that world is not really a safe or fair place — and I’m not trying to spark a competition about which generation has had it worse than others. External forces that drive childhood and adolescent anxiety about the world are not a new phenomenon. But I try to make the case throughout the book that no past American generation has faced the cumulative load of multiple simultaneous stressors with which today’s emerging adults grew up.

(And let me acknowledge here that this point about multiple stressors clearly does not apply to earlier cohorts in other regions of the world, like Germans in the 1930s, growing up amid crippling financial and political instability and the rise of the Nazis. Nor does it apply to those currently growing up in developing nations or regions plagued by wars, corrupt governments, famine, and forced migration. I absolutely don’t mean to ignore or downplay the challenges those groups have faced, but my book focuses on current cultural dynamics in the U.S.)

As a result of all of these complex external forces, including the omniprevalence (if that’s a word) of social media, this generation is stressed! I recognized that when I first started teaching a bit more than a decade ago, and it’s become progressively worse since then, even before the pandemic. I’ve observed this in my college students, both anecdotally and in a number of surveys I’ve conducted on my campus, and it was confirmed in a thousand-person survey of 18- to 29-year-olds I commissioned in Spring 2019. Participants in that study were racially/ethnically representative of the U.S. population and balanced by gender. I also oversampled people who did not attend or complete college, since a valid source of criticism about most research on emerging adults is that it only includes college students as they’re easily available subjects, so those studies miss the various impacts of not pursuing or completing higher education.

The results of this survey were pretty grim. Some key findings:

  • 37% said they knew someone who had died of a drug overdose

  • 30% said they were very or extremely concerned that they will be affected by a natural disaster like a tornado, hurricane, or flood; 48% were somewhat concerned; and 22% were not at all concerned.

  • 36% said they were very or extremely concerned that they or their community will be affected by a human-caused disaster (terrorist attack, mass shooting, etc.); 46% were somewhat concerned; and 18% were not at all concerned.

  • 46% said they were very or extremely concerned that they or their community will be affected by climate change, 35% were somewhat concerned, and 19% were not at all concerned.

I also included a number of open-ended question asking about various aspects of their experiences and expectations relative to other generations. Some examples:

“I think the terrorist attacks have had an influence on everyone’s lives, even those who weren’t old enough or even born yet when they happened. The attacks and the way they were dealt with have had a ripple effect across many different aspects of life. Namely, homeland security, the treatment of Middle Eastern people (especially those who are Muslim), and allowing a space for racist and conservative hate-mongers to justify their beliefs.”

“I think [9/11] has influenced everyone who was alive at the time. You don't feel safe and invincible. You know no one is completely safe.”

“I’ve grown up in the 21st century, where disasters happen every 20 minutes.”

“My generation faces many challenges. I feel like back then the main issue was race. But now it is gender equality climate change politics baby boom poverty less career options and violence amongst communities along with violence with government officials.”

Yes, they are stressed — and some really struggle with mental health issues, and many are pissed off at older generations for the messed up state of the world they’ve been handed — but in my view, those reactions aren’t signs of fragility or entitlement, but very rational responses to the reality of their incredibly complicated and often threatening world. If anything, we should be applauding their resilience and drive.

When I first started reading the book, part of me was like “wait, I experienced all of these things as a young adult, shouldn’t I also be Generation Disaster?” Can you say more about why you focused specifically on people who are *now* emerging adults?

This goes back to the basic concept of a “cohort effect” — developmental psychology-speak for the obvious fact that shared societal conditions have a different effect depending on the age when a particular group experiences them. For example, your nation going to war has a very different potential personal significance if you’re a child, of military service age, or retired at the time. Or, perhaps more relevant for today’s adults of all ages, the impact of smartphones and social media is likely to vary if it’s all one has ever known versus a later addition that may change social interaction practices rather than forming them initially. It’s not that one version of this timing is intrinsically better or worse than another, they’re just different.

Kids at the time might not have been directly impacted by these events if their caregivers managed to buffer them from external forces. But these forces shaped the broader culture in which Generation Disaster grew up, including the various forms of stress and fear their parents may have experienced and inadvertently communicated to their kids.

This also was the time of the rise in school shootings and all of the subsequent security measures in schools, including lockdown drills that sometimes actively traumatize children and educators in the process of trying to teach them to stay safe, so members of this generation were experiencing those stressors directly at a vulnerable age. The Great Recession caused many parents to lose work and sometimes their houses, bringing more external threats directly into the cohort’s homes — and in some cases limiting higher education opportunities or forcing students to take on problematic amounts of debt.

All of this is to point out a couple of key factors that differentiate Generation Disaster’s formative experiences from older groups. The broader environment a generation grows up in shapes key aspects of their eventual adult lives, including practical matters (professional ambitions) as well as more philosophical matters (beliefs about justice and safety). Those are themes I tried to explore in the book: How has this particularly complex combination of disasters, social conditions, and omnipresent media influenced this cohort of emerging adults? And what does that mean for America’s future as they pursue career and life goals and move into positions of power in society?

Virtually no one gets through life without experiencing some form of trauma, and some people get far more than their fair share. But most of us also have the capability to adapt and to recover from those difficult times — what we refer to in the disaster mental health field as "getting back to baseline functioning," whatever that looks like for each individual. We can view our sense of destabilization as a departure, hopefully temporary, from the norm. With time, effort, and maybe some counseling, we can get back to something like that norm, and we might even experience post-traumatic growth in the wake of experiences that force us to reevaluate our worlds. That was my own post-9/11 path, though it came at a significant psychological cost.

But it’s unclear what that typical pattern of recovery means for a group like Generation Disaster, whose baseline was formed during childhood and adolescence in the crucible of post-9/11 life. They never got the chance to simply feel safe in school, let alone in the wider world, and now the pandemic has thoroughly disrupted every aspect of life and caused multiple new losses of typical developmental experiences — upending traditional educational practices, preventing opportunities like jobs and internships, limiting dating and traveling, disrupting marriage plans, and for some, causing serious personal illness or the deaths of family members and friends. For this group it seems more like the world is constantly undermining and eroding their personal baselines rather than shoring them up.

Again, there's little to be gained by competing for who had it worse throughout the pandemic, or at any other time before or after 9/11. I won't downplay Covid’s impact on older adults who were at high risk of serious illness and death if they contracted the virus, and for whom the social distancing and lockdown rules were particularly isolating. I certainly won’t downplay it for parents struggling to raise and educate children over the past 18 months.

But I will ask those older adults to please consider the fear and sense of injustice they may have experienced during the pandemic: What if that were not a temporary period they had to suffer through in order to get back to their personal baseline, but their permanent state of being because they’d never known a time when they didn't feel they were in danger, both physically and financially? That, to me, is really what differentiates Generation Disaster from older (even just slightly older) groups: we have a “before” to compare all of the calamities of the past 20 years to, while for many of these emerging adults this state of chronic and acute stress is their “always,” and it’s a really destabilizing state of existence for many.

In the book I compare it to an iceberg — a tired analogy, I know, but it’s so true here: the developmental effects of growing up in the post-9/11 world, amid so many other acute disasters, are the tip of the issues I first observed among my students. But that was only the visible apex. Just beneath the surface, this generation has endured chronic stressors like climate change and the steady fear of school shootings, driven home by participation in school lockdowns and disproportionate media coverage of these rare but awful events. And that layer rests on an even broader base of unjust social conditions that feel so entrenched that many members of Generation Disaster can’t seem to see any way to alter them — systemic racism, for sure, and especially the problems of the income and wealth gaps. It’s a lot for a formative environment!

I know it’s generally difficult to gauge how parenting changes, in part because the number of longitudinal studies are always limited  — but what can you discern about the way parents changed their thinking about safety and their children’s future? How do we know about these changes and what do we know about how this shifts according to politics, religion, class, and race?

Yes, this is such a tricky research subject methodologically. There are a handful of longitudinal studies (AHP note: longitudinal studies are studies that ask the same questions several times over the course of many years in order to gauge changes in thinking, etc) that happened to have pre-9/11 baseline data on various aspects of parenting and child outcomes. From those, we can reasonably attribute changes in the later data collection waves to the attacks, but those are few and far between. Even these studies don’t usually extend more than a few years post-event, so we don’t know what happened as those kids moved into adolescence, let alone emerging adulthood.

I conducted a small survey of parents of the Generation Disaster cohort a couple of years ago, asking them to recall the impact of the attacks on their parenting. That was self-reported data from the distance of 18 years after the fact, so I don’t claim any kind of generalizability. Many of those parents said that in retrospect, they really didn’t feel the attacks alone had much direct impact on their families or their own behavior.

But as I write in the book, we need to remember that these parents were experiencing a combination of other chronic stressors as they raised their children — the grownup versions of the numerous challenges that shaped the early environment for Generation Disaster. What’s more, the parents were experiencing these stressors with the full awareness of adulthood, unlike their children, who were largely exposed to these issues only indirectly. That includes — but is by no means limited to — forces like the personal impact of the post-9/11 wars for those who served in the military or had a family member serve, the Great Recession, and parental fears about school shootings. And let’s remember more broadly that many parents of Generation Disaster became mothers and fathers while they themselves were still emerging adults: in 1988, the median age at first marriage was 25.9 years for men and 23.6 years for women, and just over half (51.5%) of married couples had their first child by age 25.

Regardless of cohort, demographic characteristics, or any other individual or collective differences or similarities: children’s responses to stressful and traumatic events are closely correlated with their caregivers’ reactions. Ideally caregivers can provide a protective layer of support that buffers children from experiencing external threats. They can potentially serve as a kind of emotional shock absorber for their children — but that means fully absorbing the blows themselves, which is never easy and not always possible. If they’re unable to do so, their children are likely to echo and even amplify the parents’ stress reactions. This was often the case for members of Generation Disaster in their childhood and adolescence, as their parents were forced to juggle multiple serious stressors above and beyond the attacks.

And then there’s the impact of technology, particularly the now ubiquitous access to cell phones that allow parents to remain constantly connected to children. It’s hard to remember that until very recently, it was standard practice for most children to head off to school and then be completely out of touch with parents until everyone returned home at the end of the day. As a result, kids naturally had to learn to handle situations on their own, and parents had to learn to trust that their kids were safe while they were separated. That’s an essential part of growing up — the process of “individuation,” in which children establish their own identity and autonomy, becoming independent from (but ideally still connected to) parents in appropriate degrees.

School was traditionally a kind of testing ground for cultivating individuation, but for some members of Generation Disaster, the cleanly defined separation from parents while they were at school or otherwise physically apart has become blurred by the introduction of the mobile phone, which meant that while previously children and parents both grew accustomed to being out of touch for long periods of time, suddenly the once unavoidable contact gap became optional. Parents could choose to provide their kids with a phone in order to maintain a channel of communication throughout the day, and children accepted that “electronic tether” in exchange for all of the other social benefits provided by having a phone.

I’m not criticizing parents for wanting this ability to feel connected to their children at any age, especially given their own likely fears about school shootings and other threats. Smartphones have many positive effects that can give parents a sense of protecting their kids when they aren’t physically together. But the introduction of this digital tether, which happened to coincide with the post-9/11 era, has upended norms established by the previous generations who had clear boundaries between times of family togetherness and separation. It’s worth questioning how that constant connectedness has impacted the younger generation’s ability to individuate fully as they move into emerging adulthood, as well as the parents’ ability to let them grow up and really establish their independence.

Last point on Generation Disaster’s parents: many of the parents I surveyed did recognize the stressful environment their kids live in and genuinely fear for their future happiness and safety. I found this response from a woman born in 1975 who is the parent of two emerging adults so poignant:

“I love my kids so much but I think I have done them a real disservice by creating them. The world they have to go into is not the world I would have chosen for them or did in fact envision…. I think they will refrain from having children out of fear for the habitability of the world when those hypothetical children would become adults.”

I write a lot about how millennials have been ‘conditioned to precarity’ because of how so much of the generation experienced the Great Recession. But I hadn’t entirely thought of how that precarity intersected with more nebulous forms of global and domestic trauma, of fear and distrust and a general understanding that the world is dying. What do you think people who write about this generation just generally get wrong? What are they missing, and what are they misinterpreting? Is this generation a sort of 21st century version of the Lost Generation, or is that too hackneyed a comparison?

Well, I’ll push back on the Lost Generation label primarily not because I think it’s hackneyed, but because I can’t bear to believe that it’s true! These people are survivors and realists, and I’m actually really excited to see what they’ll do to effect much-needed changes as they start to come into power — which is going to happen no matter how hard older generations try to suppress them and, in way too many cases, fail to put any effort into understanding them.

I write a lot in the book about the myth of the American Dream, the notion that we live in a meritocracy where anyone who just works hard enough can elevate their standing. That’s such a toxic message because a) it’s never been true for everyone in the past, just those who society has chosen to allow access to upward mobility (primarily white men, historically), and b) the corollary is the implication that if you don’t manage to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” you’re just lazy or incompetent.

Both parts of that message utterly fail to take into consideration all of the factors you’ve written about, like the devaluation of a college degree despite the drastically increased cost of obtaining that degree, and the shift to the gig economy and other forms of unstable jobs that offer little opportunity for advancement or ability to earn enough to scrape by, let alone begin saving to buy a home or start a family or retire.

You’ve written about young people being sold a “false bill of goods about the immeasurable value of higher education” which I think is dead on — and then they’re blamed by older groups for struggling with student debt and not finding secure jobs that have largely evaporated. I also think there’s an equivalent false bill of goods about the future of the world in general, largely tied to a generational divide in awareness of climate change.

As I write this, New Orleans and New York City were just flooded by the same hurricane, and hundreds of thousands of acres are burning in the west. It’s this generation that will be forced to confront the effects of decades of human actions, especially the use of fossil fuels, that will result in global problems like increases in diseases spread by mosquitos and other vectors; increased respiratory illnesses; heat-related illnesses and deaths; and reduced access to necessities like clean water and air, sufficient food, and safe shelter.

There will also be more deaths worldwide due to increasingly intense and frequent natural disasters, like our current floods and wildfires — and Generation Disaster knows all of this. They don’t have the privilege of ignoring or denying the issue, and I think older writers seriously underestimate how powerful the resulting stress, increasingly referred to as “eco-anxiety,” is for them. It’s genuinely existential for many emerging adults, like this survey participant, born in 2001:

“My generation’s problems stem from a root planted in the distant past, except other generations have had the benefit of mass ignorance and apathy. My generation does not get that opportunity. We have been dealt a bad hand and forced to bet. My generation has to be the one to save Earth and that's our biggest problem.”

So yes, many of them are angry about the existing power structure, or desperate about their futures. How could they not be? But they’re not going to stay down without a fight. I just wish older writers and observers would stop viewing Generation Disaster through the lens of the societal conditions of their own youths and start recognizing that the world has changed and these young people are doing the best they possibly can.

In Reign of Terror, Spencer Ackerman makes a compelling case that the decisions that led us into war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the resulting justifications have profoundly shaped our national ideologies about surveillance, and drone strikes, and the ‘threat’ of China. Last month, after the airport bombing in Kabul, I was struck by the framing of the U.S. military members who’d been killed — multiple outlets called them “9/11 babies” who’d never known a life in which the United States wasn’t engaged in the war on terror.

I know it’s difficult to say how things will change now that the U.S. has officially left Afghanistan, but does it actually feel like a bookend? Does Generation Disaster just continue? 

I wish I felt like the U.S. finally pulling out of Afghanistan would have any impact whatsoever on most members of Generation Disaster, but I don’t. Or course, that’s likely very different for the tiny minority of Americans who actually volunteer to serve in the military in typical times (most of whom come from families where that’s a multigenerational tradition), along with the millions of veterans of the post-9/11 wars, and their loved ones who share the fallout from their service. They’re all probably paying a lot more attention, but I doubt they can take much satisfaction in the way Operation Enduring Freedom and its follow-up actions ended — particularly those related to the Marines who were killed during that final withdrawal, or those who experienced serious physical or psychological injuries trying to achieve earlier progress that will now be entirely reversed. I feel sick about that, and can only imagine how much worse that pain is for those who sacrificed to try to effect change.

But of course we don’t currently have a draft, so the direct impact of service isn’t widely distributed across the population. As a result, I really don’t see most young adults without any kind of military affiliation paying a whole lot of attention to military actions. That’s not because they don’t care, I don’t think, but the nation being involved in distant wars for complicated and confusing reasons is just the norm for them — another source of usually gloomy news in their feed that’s always been there to varying degrees of intensity. When they’re focused on what one survey participant described as “literally just trying to survive,” it’s no surprise that wars being fought by other people, in other nations, have not been a priority for many in the cohort.

That’s not to imply they’re oblivious to this issue. Many survey respondents did mention war as a major societal problem, and many recognized how 9/11 was used as a source of justification, valid in their eyes or not, for both the initiation of the wars and the restrictions resulting from the Patriot Act. Many emerging adults see and care about these injustices, it’s just a lower priority for most than the urgent need to pay their student loans, or fight climate change, or not get shot in class or at a traffic stop.

Of course those priorities would be a hell of a lot different for the millions of Afghanis and other young people who’ve grown up in combat zones or occupied countries since 2001, or who experienced forced migration as a result of the post-9/11 wars and are struggling to adapt as refugees or internally displaced persons. I can’t fathom the trauma many of them have experienced, but to estimate that I think it’s reasonable to take the cumulative stressors the American Generation Disaster deal with and multiply them exponentially.

What do you grieve the most for this generation — and what makes you the most hopeful? 

I really grieve for the generations on both sides of the empathy gap between emerging adults and Boomers – for the young because of all of the dismissiveness and hostility some have internalized, and for the old because they’re depriving themselves of the opportunity to learn from these tenacious and thoughtful emerging adults. It’s especially ironic when Boomers complain about Generation Disaster protesting societal injustices like racism, sexism, and bias against LGBTQ individuals. Who do they think the younger group learned to protest from if not their own actions in the 1960s and ‘70s?

Beyond that, I just wish this generation didn’t have to feel so braced for catastrophe at all times. Now, in many ways they’re emotionally and socially open to an unprecedented degree – supportive of LGBTQ rights and alternative approaches to family formation, anti-racist, dedicated to reducing stigma around mental health issues, and so on. Those characteristics make me very hopeful, as does their obvious resilience.

I always say that what’s remarkable isn’t that many in the generation are struggling to find their footing as adults, but that so many are flourishing despite everything they’ve experienced so far, and all of the disasters that they know still lie ahead. This survey participant, born in 1992, captures it well:

“It feels as though we're being stuck with a bill for a party that we didn't attend. We are going to have to be responsible for mitigating climate change, enacting health care reform, reducing income inequality, etc., while older generations don't seem to care.”

It’s that perception of not being cared about by older adults that really upsets me — because that could easily change, but there are no signs that it will. I know it’s not realistic to encourage older adults to retire from their lucrative jobs or powerful political positions to make way for the next generation, or to voluntarily redistribute their assets to narrow the wealth gap, but one thing we can easily do is to stop judging this group and start listening to them.

You can find Generation Disaster here.