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Generation What?

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A lot has been said recently about my generation: we are cynical apathetic, privileged, irrationally optimistic, ironically detached, isolated, connected in new ways through the Internet. We like to volunteer but not to protest, we like to protest but not to do grassroots organizing, and on and on. How can there be this much contradictory talk about today's youth? What is most accurate? The answer is that it is all right, and all wrong. It is pointless to pigeonhole an entire group of people -- especially one as diverse as American youth. Some of us graduate from prestigious universities and spend our 20s making six-figure salaries working on Wall Street. Others spend their 20s foraging for tofu in Whole Foods dumpsters and giving it away to homeless people. And most of us fall somewhere in between.

Perhaps the most defined generation in recent memory is the baby boomers. For the first time there was a clearly identified "age gap" and you were famously not supposed to trust anyone over 30. Creating and fostering a youth culture helped sell clothes and records to a group of folks focused on being hip. Of course, there was much more diversity of opinion then than was let on. For instance, according to a recent article published in the Times, "In October 1968, when Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon and George Wallace were running for president, a Gallup poll found that about half, 52 percent, of people under the age of 30 supported the war in Vietnam." That is certainly not the impression most people have now towards '60s youth. The identity created by and for baby boomers has stayed relatively unchanged, even though it was completely narrow in scope.

Things are even less clear-cut now. In his recent prize-winning essay published in the Times, Yale student Nicholas Handler declares, "...what do we really stand for? Like a true postmodern generation we refuse to weave together an overarching narrative to our own political consciousness." Many people attacked his essay for being pretentious but I think he touched upon a basic kernel of truth. Postmodernism speaks of the fragmentation of identity and this is no different for the identity of a group of people.

There are some very promising signs for our fractured generation. For the first time since the voting age was reduced to 18 we have seen an upsurge in young people going to the polls. According to Rock The Vote the amount of young people who voted in 2004 as opposed to 2002 increased from 11 percent to 13 percent. Youth were an important factor in the power change in Washington. And young people are volunteering at higher numbers than they have in years. We are also creating new forms of community through sites like Meetup.com and Facebook. Say what you will about the type of interaction the Internet fosters, youth have used it more than any other group to creatively form community.

Does this community building and newly found civic engagement mean we are any easier to pin down? Probably not, but it does show that we are reshaping society as we continue to reshape ourselves. This may be scary to a lot of older folks who are uncertain about what impact we will have. But it is specifically our diversity that will benefit American democracy. We are engendering a dialogue that will create new ideas and new types of action. And from this pluralistic pastiche will come a new image of America. So give us some time, pundits, and stop trying glibly to distill an entire generation of folks into one or two words. As Anthony Michael Hall said in the denouement to the mother of all high school movies, The Breakfast Club: "You see us as you want to see us... In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions."