06/15/2011 12:03 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2011

Not the 9/11 Generation

You guys look great. Remember to be fearless and thank mom and dad. Strive, surprise, empathize, fact-check, and chip away at the big problems. Inequality and global warming are particularly good ones.

These are the general themes taken up by every year's crop of commencement speakers -- the advisoratti elected to stick their fingers in the zeitgeist and address, and define, the graduating class, as well as the world they're inheriting.

But this year, another less uplifting leitmotif boomed from commencement stages: September 11th.

"You were young children when you watched planes hit the World Trade Center," said Amy Poehler to a sea of crimson graduates. "Your formative teenage years were filled with orange alerts, and rogue waves, and unaccomplished missions."

"Ten years ago we busied ourselves with trivial stuff imbued with importance," Tom Hanks, the affable sage of Hollywood, told Yale's senior class. "And then came 9/11."

And at one graduation, to great applause: "Every American can be proud of our brave military and intelligence personnel who made sure that the terrorist leader who attacked us on 9/11 will never threaten America again." That was Obama, though, at the Coast Guard Academy, so it was perhaps a little more fitting.

When the president announced bin Laden's death last month, it was young people, college students, who rejoiced together at the White House, Ground Zero, and on university campuses, with slightly unsavory zest. For young people, claimed older commentators, it was our "bookend moment," "the end of an era," We could "finally exhale a little bit."

Bin Laden "was the first person I was ever taught to hate" tweeted one reveller. He was our generation's semi-phantasmic foe, an honour cemented in history on the night of his death, when the editor of the New York Times, in the heady hold-the-presses newsroom, chose to forgo the paper's style and cut the "Mr." from Mr. Bin Laden, elevating him, in one small semantic swoop, into the Hall of Last Name Only Evil.

But what does it actually mean to be the "9/11 Generation"? The kids who heard principals stutter the news over staticy PAs, watched their parents cry at TV sets, and grew up with perpetual war in far away countries we couldn't find on a map. Have we grown up with a greater awareness of disorder in the world? Has dumping all those 200 ml bottles of acne medication in airport security bins made us more fearful, more aware of the fragility of our own lives?

Theories about 9/11 and the young American psyche could fill a pseudo-social-sciencey seminar syllabus. Some claim it's jolted Gen Y into premature nostalgia, as we grope for that lost, innocent time of American invincibility via Harry Potter and Saved By the Bell.

Others look at movies like Donnie Darko, Ghost World and Juno and see a generation warped by 9/11 into a love of "alienated kids in dystopian worlds."

But kids have always been alienated and high school is always dystopian. On the other hand, "the apocalypse is here protect your children" genre has made a killing in the last decade. War of the Worlds, The Road, and 2012 all show strapping men shielding their offspring from various CGI metaphors for a world in chaos.

It seems to me like someone's projecting.

It's true that bin Laden's death had a special meaning to young people. Not because it marked the end of a childhood weaned on fear, but because America finally managed to do something it set out to do. 9/11 stoked pride in this country, pride that was massively overdrawn in the long years that followed of unclear goals and unclearer achievements.

I was living in London when the World Trade Centers crumbled, and in Berlin with bin Laden sunk to the bed of the Arabian Sea. But I am American, and saw firsthand as my nationality transformed into something I had to sheepishly defend.

Attitudes towards an accent tend to reflect general world opinion of that country (British: quaint and refined; French: cultured and hitting on you; New Zealand: I thought you were South African) and my rounded vowels and rhotic kicks became embarrassing markers as the 2000s wore on. The Iraq war and fast food exposes made America's influence in the world seem decidedly less benign, and arrogance, ignorance and supersized thighs became the defining American stereotypes abroad.

Bookshelves filled with titles like The End of the American Century, The Decline and Fall of the American Republic, and The Post-American World. Our country was in its last throes, warned preachers like Pat Robertson and Sarah Palin and Michael Moore, dying from sin and socialism and Sarah Palin.

There hasn't been much, it seemed, to stick a flag in.

When Obama arrived on the scene, the youth of the nation giddily awoke. Electing a black president gave many young Americans a booster shot of patriotism, but the years that followed didn't have so many clear-cut victories.

Then SEAL Team Six killed the bad guy.

Perhaps a handful of kids chanting "U-S-A!" were pumped up on bloodlust, but I think most of us were just pumped; we had a reason to chant "U-S-A!" in a non-sports or drunk fraternity related way.

A survey found that before 9/11 most college students were seeking for-profit corporate work, but since then, the government, Peace Corps, and Teach for America have dominated kids' choices. It isn't the fear of impending doomsday that's prompted this turn to service. Impending doomsday, one would think, would make young people go into banking and stockpile gold and spam.

Rather, this shift shows a young generation's reaction to growing up in a world afraid of impending doomsday. It's a rejection of the paranoiac fantasies of gray-templed talking heads, and a desire to really examine and chip away at the big problems. Inequality and global warming are particularly good ones.