A couple years back, studying in my school's graduate library with a group of finals-stressed friends, I was confronted by a strange exam question for my poli sci course.
The prompt for my take-home final provided two choices. The 'fun' option invited the test taker to write a 'history of America's future' while elaborating on the central concepts we learned throughout the semester.
For some reason I got really into the assignment. Adopting the sage tone I noticed narrating many of my history textbooks, I wrote about things in the past tense that had yet to take place and probably never would.
I was having so much fun shaping America's fictitious future that I had to stop and read it aloud to a friend -- just to make sure it didn't sound like a complete joke.
My exam painted the picture of a bright and rosy American future:
Starting in 2008, Obama would promote policies that reversed the disintegration of American domestic industry and rebuilt the social safety net with a series of new programs that surpassed even that of the New Deal era. At the same time, the U.S. would be reinvigorated by a renewed sense of patriotism, through the emphasis of its shared experience of the recession.
That was almost two years ago. Everywhere you looked back then, my generation was still riding the wave of fist-pumping enthusiasm that resulted from Barack Obama's election to the White House in 2008. Yes we did.
My own enthusiasm at the time colored my vision of America's future and personal outlook at the prospects for my generation.
Lately, though, I've been thinking and reading as much as I can about my generation.
With regret, I've got to say that every major article I've encountered reads like a colossal downer -- the record turnout among youth to elect President Obama overshadowed by our entry into the jobless wasteland of America's economy.
The bulk of the articles, which pull no punches when it comes to the morbidity of our circumstances, doom millennials to a slew of crappy fates.
Harvard University labor economist Lawrence Katz predicted that we could become "a lost generation." Kate Zernike, in her article "Generation OMG," boils Generation Y down to "The Recession Kids," who, like the Silent Generation of the 1950s, may very well spend our time and energy searching in vain for stability in a world of economic entropy.
Even the earth-shaking article for the New York Times Magazine, "What Is It About 20-Somethings?," underscored how the fallout from the economy has negatively impacted us... sending us slowly spiraling down some sort of new Revolutionary Road.
After doing a little more digging, I realized something. Most of the stuff floating around in the ether about who millennials are, what we will become, our wants, needs, and desires, is the byproduct of older generations' curiosity, concern and fear for our future. We've been letting boomers and Gen Xers write the history of our future and there isn't anything funny about it.
Of course it would be hard for anyone to put a finger on the pulse of what defines our generation, especially when that generation is just beginning to come of age.
However, what is worth investigating, and what we can observe with more certainty than the future, is our present.
We Gen-Yers have already developed some pretty unique behaviors, many worth considering:
Why, for instance, has FOMO (fear of missing out) become such a big deal for millennials? In what ways could it be characteristic of our generational cohort's outlook on life?
What about our relationship with patriotism? Why are so many American millennials focused on both local and global movements, but fall short in terms of our declared love for the Red, White and Blue? Does this attitude vary across regional, racial and socio-economic lines?
And what about the idea that we are a risk averse, achievement-oriented generation? Is this combo of contradictory characteristics the genesis of all our generational neurosis and behaviors?
These are important questions that have answers in the present. Investigating them will hopefully yield the kind of on the ground insights that the public won't get by watching as the boomers relegate us into a big blob of petulant crybabies who want to wear shorts to work and don't feel we need to "pay our dues."