The 9/11 generation at university: Will they find hope?
The new school term started at most North American colleges and universities this week. In the not too distant past, this time of year was often marked by buoyant optimism and lofty plans for a great future for the students attending these institutions of higher learning. But given the many ways life has changed for the worse in the post-9/11 world, it’s more than possible that fantastic futures of the type we always imagined might not be in store for all of these young men and women who were young children on September 11, 2001.
We have heard the stories, stories based in unfortunate fact, about university graduates who are finishing school with many tens of thousands in student loan debt and no jobs to hold to help pay down that debt. And young men and women forced to move back home and sometimes stay back home for years with parents who are forced to indefinitely shelve their post-kid life plans. I know some of these parents. Most of them are not thrilled about having twentysomething kids living at home again, especially such kids who don’t have jobs and appear to have no remaining cleaning, cooking or voice modulation skills. Nor are these young people always happy about having to live in houses with middle-aged parents who have watched too many episodes of “That 70s Show” and want to re-live their disco era, Pabst Blue ribbon and avocado green washing machine youth.
Anyway, if you’ve read my pieces for Open Salon, you know I live not far from the University of Minnesota, and that I frequently walk through the campus. So when school started this week, I thought I’d do more than just hurry through throngs of kids or duck into nearby buildings to take in a bit of air conditioning on my way to my destination. I thought I’d spend some serious time and pay attention to the faces and conversations of these 9/11 generation people. Did they seem at all hopeful? Or do they seem resigned to a coming world that might not be so much 1984 but maybe a touch more “Waterworld” than anyone would like (perhaps substituting Kevin Costner for someone more suited to hardship in a globally warmed drowning world)? Or do they just want to get laid or get drunk?
It’s been, well, a quite long time since I was a university freshman, but I noticed right away that some things haven’t changed at all, a depressed economy/society notwithstanding. For instance, I still saw plenty of those beginning of school unlikely hookups that are highly unlikely to last more than a few weeks. Girls who might have been homecoming or prom queens holding hands with computer nerds who live on the same dorm floor and likely hail from nearby towns. Guys who seem like players (or they will be once they are a little older) telling shy, not so well dressed girls who could stand to lose a few pounds that they really do know how to get to the architecture building. I actually heard such a conversation between this sort of man and woman and thought, oh, there is no way this kid knows his way but maybe they will get lost and he’ll buy her a smoothie and they’ll make it until at least Thanksgiving.
One thing I did not observe all that much of were kids who obviously looked either poor or working class. Most of the students I saw over the course of a few days of observation were quite well dressed, punching away at Androids, iPhones, or iPads, with lots of them clogging nearby sandwich shops and bars. We know that although private and public university tuition rates have outpaced inflation for some time now, at least some students who don’t have a lot of money are still managing to attend school (thus explaining some of those crushing student loan debt loads). Maybe this generation of struggling kids just knows how to make things appear more affluent. Or they are better shoppers than we could be back in the day. Still, for all their nice clothes and mobile devices, I didn’t see too many outwardly happy faces.
At one point I thought I needed to stop being a clothing and relationship voyeur and try to actually talk to some of these young people (if they would talk to someone who could easily be their avocado green washing machine era parent) about whether they had any hopes and dreams they wanted to discuss with a stranger.
The main campus has a fairly lush mall that is flanked by some of the school’s older, more distinguished buildings. I remember one time I waited there on the chance that I could catch my graduate student boyfriend on his way to his economics statistics final. He told me he was happy to see me but I was a distraction. It’s still a popular place to gather, so I sat there with my lunch (the food sold by the university is way better these days, that is one thing that has changed) and hoped a group of students would sit near me and talk.
Since lush green mall space comes at a premium, four students, two women and two men, soon plopped down quite near me. Quite. One of them did ask if it was okay if they sat so close and I said that was just fine.
The one who asked permission to stay then asked, in a voice that could not have been more than 18 or 19 years of age, “so, do you work here at the university?” Fair enough, but it’s still jarring to know one is NEVER again going to be taken for an ordinary student.
“No, I don’t, I did years ago, went to school here for a few years too, but now I just live in the neighborhood and wanted to come here for lunch and observe the action.”
Quiet laughter. From all four students.
“There’s no action just yet, school just started,” said one of the girls, who was wearing shorts that I thought would definitely be a distraction in almost any sort of class. “Everyone’s just trying to find a way to survive at a place this big.”
“Yeah, it was the same way in my day,” I said while noticing that one of the men was wearing a Beatles “Abbey Road” T-shirt. “Although back in the day, it was worse in some ways, as fewer students lived on campus so it was hard to make friends with people rushing off to get home or get to work.”
“At least your generation had jobs to go to,” the other woman said as she stared directly at me. “And you probably didn’t have to worry about what you were going to do once you graduated.”
“Yeah, but I just hope things are better when we get out,” one of the men said softly. “Otherwise, maybe we should have just joined the military and gone off to Afghanistan to get shot.”
“Maybe things are not that bad,” said short shorts as she looked straight at Beatles T-shirt. “I don’t think I’d do well in the Army. I don’t think any of us would do that well in the Army.”
More soft laughter.
“I’m sorry things are so rough for your generation,” I said, trying to not sound patronizing or smug. “I don’t think any of us thought things would ever get this bad. But don’t you think you still have to hope you can fix things, or that people my age can try to find some solutions before things get even worse?”
And then came the $100 million sound bite I could not have predicted had I paid for it. It came from Beatles T-shirt.
“Hope is something the president talks about, but it isn’t something a lot of us have too much of these days.”
The other three just nodded, although short shorts looked at me rather beseechingly, as if to say, do you mean it when you say maybe there is a chance things can get better.
Now these were just four young people at a university counting more than 50,000 students. And maybe they were a little stressed out, as the first week of school can do that, and especially to freshmen. Still, for all of that day’s sunshine, I could not have felt worse. I felt my peers had not, as Chief Seattle said, considered what we were leaving to the seven generations yet to come.
We five sat for a time and silently finished our lunches. A few minutes later, the group of four got up to leave, probably to get to the next class.
“Thanks, ma’am,” said short shorts. “Good luck to you.”
“No, good luck to all of you,” I said. But I cannot tell you how much I, who was living in Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001, saw from my building the gushing plumes of smoke rising up from the Pentagon and feared what else that day would bring, wished I could have said something more.