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The post-9/11 generation: Relating to the recent past

What does 9/11 mean to Gen Z; what might it mean to those to come?

An illustration of a young man and an older woman with the World Trade towers between them

September 08, 2021

For every generation, there is at least one collective, momentous occasion that leaves an indelible mark on the timeline of their lives. For boomers, Gen Xers and a good number of millennials, the moment the first plane crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, is unquestionably one of those occasions.

Twenty years on, what does 9/11 — an event that radically altered the arc of global history — mean to Generation Z, many of whom weren’t even alive at the time? And what might it mean to the generations that follow?

“Since I was 2 when it happened, I wasn't old enough to understand it in the moment and have that impact me going forward. So I was kind of removed from it. I don’t think it affected me as much personally as it would have if I was older,” said ASU psychology senior Lillian Lynch, 22.

“But I would definitely be open to hearing about the experiences of people who remember it well, because it was just such an impactful part of our history," she continued. "I think it’s important to know more about it, and they could probably teach me more than just a chapter in a history book.”

As program manager for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Arizona State University for going on seven years, Abby Baker has facilitated myriad intergenerational conversations and engagement activities. She said that opportunity to learn from one another is what’s at the heart of meaningful intergenerational connections.

“To me, intergenerational relations are all about education,” Baker said. “We each have something unique to learn from each other — among, between and across generations.”

And, she continued, that sentiment becomes especially salient when it pertains to traumatic events whose consequences ripple throughout time.

“Each generation has its traumatic historical events — the events that happen in their youth which, in part, shape their worldview and, in turn, shape the ways they make decisions about money, careers, family and so much more,” Baker said. “I think it is important to, once again, make connections across generations so it doesn't matter if a person has lived through the traumatic event in question – we've all lived through a traumatic event, and there is universality in that.”

Getting to that point of mutual understanding can be somewhat tricky, though, as former ASU Professor of English and bestselling novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes noted in an April 2021 interview with Publishers Weekly about writing “Towers Falling,” a children’s book that aims to teach them about 9/11 from the safe distance of fictional characters.

“When I presented my book in the school, the kids were so curious but lots of teachers were crying; they said they still didn’t want to teach it,” Parker Rhodes said in the interview. “What I discovered was that was very typical of parents, teachers, librarians who’d lived through it. They did not want to talk about it. The trauma was still so present. It was that sense that history is not so far past.”

The interconnectedness of past and present, and how it influences the identities of the book’s main characters — the daughter of a man who has trouble maintaining a job because of illnesses that resulted from the attack; a boy whose father is an Iraq War veteran; and a Muslim girl — is ultimately realized by them when they visit the Sept. 11 memorial and witness the firsthand accounts retold there.

Mark Tebeau, an associate professor of public history at ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, has directed more than two dozen digital humanities, oral history and public history projects. We document history for several reasons, he said.

“One is to mark that I was here; to say we existed,” Tebeau said. “But it’s also about enlightenment. Documenting the human experience provides a way of making sense of the world and defining our identities at any given moment. And that is learned and passed down through generations.”

Just as important as the fact that humans document history at all is how we document it. For example, Tebeau said, archives of World War I are more likely to have been created by members of the elite and to contain more documents from formal sources, such as newspaper clippings and professionally filmed battle footage, rather than informal sources like letters and personal photos, simply because the average person didn’t always have the means to create such records. Whereas nowadays, in the age of ubiquitous smartphone use, an archive might contain far more informal, personal documents supplied by a broader swath of society.

“That makes (history) more personal, for sure. It also makes it more accessible to younger generations,” Tebeau said.

By 2001, the proliferation of the personal computer and the increasing accessibility of the internet were giving rise to a democratization of historical documentation. One result was the September 11 Digital Archive, one of the first crowdsourced digital archives. Just a few years later, Hurricane Katrina spawned the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. Both archives employed the same open-source web-publishing platform (Omeka) that Tebeau would later use to create “A Journal of the Plague Year: An Archive of COVID-19” in 2020.

“With the computer age, what happens is we start to see a more broadly sourced record of a moment in time,” Tebeau said. But more doesn’t always mean better. “So that might mean it’s more relatable, but the sheer volume of stuff can actually make it incomprehensible.”

There is also the concern that, compounded by a lack of context, the ease with which traumatic historical events can be accessed and the tangibility afforded by modern technology have the potential to do more harm than good, something else Parker Rhodes noted in her Publishers Weekly interview.

“Due to technology, we can see the towers being attacked over and over and over again. We can’t see the Civil War repeating,” she said. “We have another kind of trauma: We risk having our children misinformed because they only see the physical impact upon our nation.”

Though a reasonable argument, some posit that perhaps precisely because younger generations have grown up in a world of overstimulation, they are actually better at coping with the side effects.

Younger generations’ openness to discussing their traumas and prioritizing their mental health has been both derided and celebrated in recent years.

Niki Gueci, executive director of ASU’s Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience, is among those celebrating, noting that “research findings have proven, time and again, that prioritizing our well-being can lead to enhanced professional and academic outcomes, less burnout and more life satisfaction.”

“We’re seeing that living in a no-sleep, constantly busy, hustle culture is not sustainable,” Gueci said. “Celebrities and others in high profile positions experienced public consequences after bouts of physical and mental exhaustion, citing stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed.”

And although she stresses that the desire to live a more mindful life in the name of overall health is not a new trend, she has noticed more amenability to the idea among younger populations.

“Younger generations are fully embracing whole-person well-being and implementing strategies that work for them in their lives, on their terms,” Gueci said. “… What I see now within our own ASU community is there is more awareness, more acceptance and more credence given to building resilience into individual lives and social structures.”

No matter how one engages with the memory of 9/11, it will always be an opportunity to reflect, to commiserate and to learn. Which lessons we choose to pass on to subsequent generations remains to be seen.

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Top illustration by Alex Davis/ASU

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