To the Class of 2021,
I know this wasn’t the senior year you wanted. Most of you are understandably frustrated because of the things the coronavirus has taken from you: cancelled or shrunken graduation ceremonies, disappearing internship and job opportunities, and missed on-campus experiences and memories that are an essential part of a college education.
But while circumstance and bad timing have deprived you of those hard-earned rewards, they have also positioned you to lead us forward in a way asked of few generations in American history. The COVID-19 menace has been the most recent in a series of existential crises we have confronted throughout our nation’s history at regular and almost predictable intervals. While it may seem like your misfortune to be thrust to the front lines in this current emergency, it also presents you with an opportunity to fulfill your role as leaders in times of peril.
Our first such challenge was the revolt by 13 American colonies against Great Britain. Approximately 75 to 80 years later, the Civil War presented the next seminal threat to our survival. The era that encompassed the Great Depression and World War II was the third time our country faced a level of fundamental danger, culminating with an Allied victory that occurred another 75 to 80 years after the Confederate troops surrendered at Appomattox. Our fourth definitional crisis arrived last year — right on time.
The newest Crisis Generation
Historians Neil Howe and William Strauss suggest our country has been shaped by four recurring and repeating generational archetypes, each of which plays a unique role in this ongoing pattern of crisis and renewal. The last crisis generation came of age during the Depression and went on to lead us to victory in World War II. They prevailed because of a collectivist attitude that motivated them to set aside considerable differences to successfully confront a common set of enemies. They are now known as “The Greatest Generation.”
The era that followed World War II and lasted until the mid-1960’s was one of stability and institutionalism, characterized by the growth of big government, big business and the accompanying economic expansion. Next came the Baby Boomers, whose ascension marked a shift to a culture of individualism and non-conformity. For the next two decades, a “me-first” ethos prevailed, one that at its best allowed for creativity and innovation to flourish but at worst encouraged selfishness and egotism.
The fourth generation in this progression marks the turn of individualism into social atomization, which Howe and Strauss refer to as an “unraveling.” These eras have historically been times in which societal bonds are so weakened and our communities become so fragmented that we make ourselves vulnerable to the next great crisis. And so the cycle begins again.
Years of turbulence:My college years were in the tumultuous 1960s. Graduates today must keep idealism alive.
This makes you the most recent archetype of this centuries-long generational sequencing, the newest Crisis Generation. The coronavirus has posed a deadly threat to our health, our social cohesion and our lives. The accompanying economic downturn has threatened your professional futures and the underpinnings of our nation’s workforce. The concurrent debate over social justice and race relations reminds us that basic threats to our ability to function as a society predate the pandemic and will not disappear even after this health crisis has passed.
Forge a post-pandemic future
This may seem like a daunting responsibility, but you are well prepared for this challenge. Many of you have learned the skills of communications, advocacy and leadership. Others have developed extraordinary technological and scientific knowledge, acquired valuable insights of the human condition and culture, and come to understand the prerequisites for economic growth and societal cohesion. Now is your time to put those skills to the test.
Tools for the fight:Howard University’s classics department is an incubator for Black equality. Don’t close it.
Most commencement speakers unintentionally condescend to their audiences by calling you “our future leaders.” But in this time of pandemic and societal crisis, we don’t have the luxury of waiting for you to gradually achieve your potential. Just as those three previous existential threats produced generations of heroic leaders who stepped into the breach before they thought they were ready, your challenge and opportunity is to help forge a new, post-pandemic future that lays the groundwork for the next era of American greatness.
You have become known collectively as “Generation Z”, a somewhat pejorative dismissal of your immense capabilities and remarkable potential. But if you assume this mantle of leadership to help us through the COVID-19 crisis and all that has accompanied it, historians will instead honor you as “Generation C,” our nation’s most recent greatest generation.
Professor Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur (@danschnur) teaches political communications at the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Southern California and Pepperdine University. He is the host of the LA World Affairs Council Town Hall weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” at www.lawac.org.