What's in a Generation?

Large group of students sitting in the lecture hall at university. Focus on the young woman and man using a digital tablet to
Large group of students sitting in the lecture hall at university. Focus on the young woman and man using a digital tablet together.

There is an inherent challenge in talking about generations. When we are in the midst of the rise of an influential new generation, it's said that we can't truly understand them and that we must leave it to history to be the judge. Yet, when we get further away from that generation's rise, we are inclined to romanticize, whitewash or otherwise re-imagine their record.

Understanding the mentality and context of a new generation as it matures into adulthood is important to creating our narrative of history and to understanding our own historical experience. For much of the last fifty years, generations have tried to define themselves before historians, social commentators, analysts, and those outside their generation get there first. The fight to define a generation has become a fight for a generation's political, cultural, and economic power.

The "Greatest Generation," has only come to be thought of as such in recent times. In the 1960s and '70s, many Boomers thought of themselves as the greatest generation -- imbued with the spirit of breaking down all boundaries, fighting all injustices, and bringing about sweeping changes in the world. At the same time, many Boomers saw their parents as anything but a great generation. Their generational forbearers seemed apathetic, technocratic, imperialistic, racist, and chauvinistic. Indeed, after their democracy-saving activities in World War II, many members of what we call the Greatest Generation today sat silent during the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and other great battles of the 1960s.

Today, however, those born between World War I and the Depression are known as the Greatest Generation in part because of new recognition of the genuinely heroic role they played in World War II, but also thanks to Tom Brokaw's 1998 book, The Greatest Generation, which became the definitive narrative of their experiences. That book came out at a time when many Boomers were looking back on their own youthful activities in the 1960s and '70s as embarrassing, failed, or at the very least, well-intentioned but lacking the long-term follow-up that social change requires. At the right moment in cultural time, Brokaw was able to document the stories of these heroes of the twentieth century. The "Greatest Generation" branding caught such a wave, such that it has become almost axiomatic today that the generation that survived the Depression and fought World War II is, indeed, in his words, "the greatest generation any society has ever produced."

Meanwhile, the Boomers, whose self-image was that of being change agents for the greatest political, moral, and cultural changes in world history during the turbulent '60s, soon became the "Me Generation" in the linguistic coinage of Tom Wolfe in the mid-1970s. Wolfe claimed that the Boomers had changed from social activists to inward-looking narcissists in a few short years. Yet nearly four decades later, we've come to more balanced appreciation of the Boomers as trailblazers who made the women's movement and the civil rights movement possible and who ended the war in Vietnam. Now, it is the Boomers and many in the Greatest Generation who accuse the Millennials of being the "Me" generation.

The Millennials have been called coddled, incapable of being responsible for our actions, excessively materialistic, and singularly focused on celebrity gossip. In some quarters the image of this generation is that we are tuned in only to our headphones, concerned only about Facebook pages, and believe that taking action is just a question of texting or tweeting. Incorrect statistics abound, including those that inaccurately claim the vast majority of Millennial college graduates are still living at home or have moved back home, uninterested or unable to get a job. One book called us the "dumbest generation." Another cast Millennials as a breeding ground for an "epidemic" of narcissism.

These views ignore many realities about this generation. Millennials, who comprise the majority of the armed forces, have fought America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. Companies started by Millennials (notably Facebook, but many others) have changed the everyday lives of hundreds of millions of people all over the world. Cultural attitudes of openness and tolerance we are imbued with have begun to percolate through the rest of society from our concern for gay rights and marriage equality to our conviction that we must play our part in staving off environmental disaster. While arguably no generation has ever been as involved as we are in philanthropic, nonprofit, and socially-minded activities, but since we often go about making that change by doing things like building businesses and using technology, the rest of the world often does not "see" what we are doing.

In time, history will come to recognize the Millennials as much more than the apathetic, self-involved, generation they have been alleged to be. I expect that the Millennials will be understood as what they are, a generation of pragmatic idealists, living thoughtfully in our own ever-changing times, using the technological and social organization tools we have pioneered to find meaning in our own lives and to have a positive impact on our world. If we can make the kind of contributions to solving currently intractable problems on the national and global agenda -- problems I believe my generation, with its fresh ideas and approaches is uniquely qualified and well-suited to help solve -- we may even come to be understood as one of the truly great generations in history.

David D. Burstein is the author of Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World. He is also the founder and executive director of the youth voter engagement organization Generation18 and director of the documentary films, 18 in'08 and Up to Us about young voters in the 2008 and 2012 elections. Burstein is a contributor to Fast Company, and a regular consultant, speaker, and commentator on Millennials, youth issues, politics, and social change. He has been seen in a range of publications and media outlets, including CNN, ABC, NPR, The New York Times, and USA Today. He lives in New York City.

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