To say that I’m 23 right now already tells you a lot about me, but it also tells you a lot about you. I know people say Millennials tend to be self-centered, and maybe my saying that is a product of that, but hear me out first.
To say that I’m 23 tells you something more significant than the number of years I’ve been alive.
I was born in 1990. I’m probably the youngest age that remembers Legends of the Hidden Temple, which might have been one of the best shows to ever grace televisions screens across the nation.
I remember my dad took my little sister and me with him to our elementary school cafeteria so he could vote to re-elect President Clinton when I was 6, and I remember knowing that I wanted Clinton to win and Bob Dole to lose. The poll workers gave my sister and me fake punch-in ballots so we could cast our own votes. It was a list of various canines, I think, that were running for president in that version of the election. I got my own “I voted” sticker and wore it home because it was a sticker and I was 6 and it had an American flag on it and that was pretty cool. But I also thought it was cool that I’d voted, even if it was just for a golden retriever. My sister doesn’t remember this because she was only 3. But I remember it.
I remember when the USS Cole was attacked and I remember listening to my dad talk about how Clinton handled it and what Democrats and Republicans thought about this. I also remember when Clinton got impeached and my dad talked about why he was angry about this.
But for the most part, the big problems in politics when I was little were mainly just that — political.
Then 9/11 happened, and I remember that too. And the world shifted.
For me and for everyone else who is 23, there are two worlds we’ve lived in: the world before 9/11 and the world after. People older than us remember the Cold War and the ’80s, and people older than that remember the cultural shift that took place in the ’60s and ’70s. But 23-year-olds don’t remember any of that because we weren’t alive. People only a few years younger than us, like my sister, have lived in both worlds but they don’t remember much from the first one.
The narrative of my life is the narrative of how the world has changed in 23 years. And it’s changed a lot. Who are we as a nation and as a culture? Look at my life and you’ll see.
I was 11 when I woke up one morning and watched the second tower fall. I’d never seen New York. I’d never been out of California. I didn’t know what the Twin Towers were or what went on in the Pentagon. I didn’t know anyone who lived in New York or even on the East Coast, so even though I knew what was going on, I understood the events that were happening before my eyes, I was removed from them.
My sister was barely 8 at the time and I’m not even sure she remembers that day, much less the “before and after” of it.
But I knew what was happening was bad. I understood there were feelings about it I was missing, but that other people were feeling. It was like the world was stagnant for a day and no one had any idea what it would mean for the rest of history, because how could we?
So much is different now.
There was a moment after where there wasn’t an “every,” there was just a “one.” There were a lot of American flags.
And I remember there was a lot of fear. Colors let us know how afraid we should be at any moment in time. “Every” and “one” were replaced by “other,” which was different than the racial or economic others that were more significant before. This was a cultural other.
There was a war we thought we should go to and we thought we would win and we thought we would win quickly. Because you didn’t mess with America. The world would know that soon enough. I remember thinking it’d be inconsequential.
That war wasn’t over yet, but another war began. And we were still afraid. Things became blurry. There were political sides, but who really knew what was going on?
I wasn’t happy when Bush was re-elected, but I wasn’t super passionate about Kerry either.
I was introduced to Barack Obama when I was 17, and I was excited about him and everything he stood for and I was sad that I was still only 17 when the primaries came around because I wanted to vote for him.
I watched his speeches and Will.i.Am’s campaign video over and over again because I think I saw in Obama the possibility of the world as it should be.
When I voted for him in 2008 it was like I was helping to push the nation along in the trajectory of my expectations for it. In many ways 2008 meant to my young adulthood what the ’90s meant to my childhood. And maybe my expectations weren’t met, but we won’t really know what trajectory I helped put us on until the present turns into the past and the future turns into the present.
That brings us to where we are now. One where school shootings are a thing that happens, that aren’t unheard of anymore, that there are very serious drills for — we had lockdown drills when I was in high school, but they were conducted with the implication that they’d never have to be used, because Columbine was far enough behind us that it seemed only an isolated incident. Now it’s different. The naiveté is gone, just like the naiveté of a possible terrorist attack vanished after 2001.
War is a thing we’re used to. Responding to violence is something we prepare for because we think it actually might happen, not as a matter of “just in case.”
It’ll be less strange to today’s children. Their lives exist wholly in this new world of ours. For them there’s no before. Children of the ’90’s were as naive as the decade in which we were being raised.
We didn’t worry about getting the jobs we wanted. If we worked hard, we were told, the jobs would be there waiting for us. It turns out they’re not. At least not all of them. I worked hard and I went to college and graduated, but right now I’m still only an intern. I’m lucky I get paid to be that. I’m not alone.
I’m not bitter about it. That’s just how things are. I know it’s just going to take a little longer to get where I want to go. And that maybe I’ll get paid a little less.
My expectations had to change because the world changed.
If all events in life only find their true meaning by the narrative in which they exist, then my life works as that narrative. It’s a context to frame our changing world.
That’s what it means to be 23.
This essay received honorable mention in this magazine’s 2013 Young Alumni Essay contest. To see the winners, visit magazine.nd.edu/news/45034/.