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Millennials

A Lost Generation?

As the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, we remember those who died, we try to give voice to the collective emotions we felt then and still carry today, and we consider how the decade since the attacks has shaped us. But it is especially enlightening to realize what it all means to today’s 20-somethings, who were in elementary or junior high school in 2001.

When President Bush climbed atop a rubble pile at Ground Zero and said into a bullhorn, “…the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon,” he put into motion events that would change our nation and have implications far beyond our understanding at the time.

Less than 1 percent of Americans wear the uniform these days, according to a recent Wall Street Journal column. And yet, the influence of our warriors reverberates daily in their defense of our cherished freedoms, and especially in the hopes of today’s youth. It should go without saying—and regardless of political persuasion—that as a nation we feel a tremendous pride and thankfulness for the mission our men and women in uniform are carrying out.

The emotion is sincere and palpable. I’ve witnessed two recent small-town gatherings related to soldiers. One was in New Castle, Pa., where fire trucks, police, and some 200 thunderous motorcycles from the War Dogs escorted a fallen soldier home. Citizens lined the street to pay heartfelt and solemn respects to the soldier who gave his life in Afghanistan. The second was in Lake Pleasant, N.Y., where a returning soldier received a standing ovation as he walked in a Fourth of July parade.

As I absorbed these powerfully patriotic moments, I couldn’t help but think about how Sept. 11, the resulting wars and the economic difficulties during the past 10 years have affected our youth and their approaching adulthood. In the aftermath, today’s 20-somethings experienced the coming together of their communities to help the terror attacks’ victims; bake sales and clothing drives were common. They watched as towns across the U.S. sent firefighters, police and emergency responders to help victims and clear the rubble at Ground Zero. The wars entered their homes through grainy green-hued footage captured with night-vision goggles and through 24/7 updates on YouTube. Soon, they would play such video games as Call of Duty, with amazingly realistic combat scenes. One recent high school graduate I know dreamily talked of becoming a member of the Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden. He’s a gamer, and though I can’t say for certain, I bet he used video games to simulate the adrenaline rush of combat without feeling its physical wounds. We were at his graduation party, and when talk turned to his four years of college, his enthusiasm quickly faded.

Indeed, when the video game is over, his generation opens their bedroom doors to the reality of an economy and job market that is painfully unable to create employment opportunities. The national unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds was 25.9 percent in 2010, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. For 20- to 24-year-olds, it stood at 15.5 percent.

These facts can make overcoming the anxious inertia of joblessness difficult. Shaped by the past 10 years of war, excellent marketing by recruiters, a sense of duty, and a bit of desperation, young people might turn to the military to get experience and a good salary until the private-sector job market recovers. Yet the military isn’t the reliable source of employment it once was, as CNN recently reported. The Army and Marines are shrinking by design, with active-duty forces scheduled to be reduced by 22,000 and 15,000 next year.

A four-year-college graduate recently told me that he was going to join the military. I found out a few weeks later that the recruiters told him to come back in a few months—they were full. With debts and student loan time bombs ticking, jobless stress can be intense. Young people aren’t sure if things will turn out as planned. They might have classmates and friends at war in the Middle East, or some who have returned and are unable to deprogram from the immersion of combat—or those who don’t return alive.

If today’s young adults cannot find a way forward to gainful employment as a group, they face the risk of becoming a lost generation stunted by a tough economy and limited job prospects.

America’s youth is at a crossroads. Unlike any other generation, they must pick themselves up by the bootstraps and create their own work. But there is hope. Unable to find work, Generation Y members are starting their own businesses, according to Fast Company. The article cites a recent Young Entrepreneur Council survey that found that 21 percent of respondents started businesses because they were unemployed. It’s a cliché but true: Necessity is the mother of invention. If our youth can foster our nation’s historic and robust entrepreneurial spirit, they might just carry us out of the economic malaise from their bedrooms.

Jeff Jones is an account executive at Euro RSCG Worldwide PR.

This post originally ran on the Euro RSCG PR blog.

Image credit: Creative Commons/numbphoto@flickr.com

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