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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: The American Next delves into the lives of a new generation

By Jacqui Banaszynski
June 30, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

A recent piece in The New York Times by David Leonhardt explored the new generation gap and how today’s economic and political policies play out for the old versus the young. It ends this way:

… today’s young really are different. They view a boisterously diverse United States as a fact of life, and they view life as clearly better than it used to be. But they are also products of the longest economic slump in 70 years, and they would like a little help. They wish the country would devote more attention to its future, especially on education and the climate. They, of course, will have to live with that future.

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You don’t have to agree with the author’s politics to appreciate the data he presents. Study after study show that a generation of Americans born into boom times are entering adulthood in a different world than the one they grew up in. Their future is fraught with economic and military risk.  They often have a greater sense of entitlement, but less opportunity. College students who trusted the path of education may not be able to afford the tab. Middle-class kids are being told to downsize their expectations. Young immigrants live in limbo. High school students are assured the national political debate is about their future — but most can’t yet vote, so are seldom asked what they think.

We are in a time of crucial change in America and a time of deep discord. We stumble toward a presidential election that is as significant and divisive as any in our history. The two parties debate an either-or choice to be made in November.

The future they claim is up for grabs — jobs, housing, education, constitutional rights, civil liberties, social safety nets.  The idea of America as a welcome haven for all who seek liberty. The idea of America as a nation of individual destiny. 

Whoever wins this momentary debate, it will play out differently in heartland America than in Congress and the White House – differently for those who are 25 than for those who are 65.  Whatever your own politics, this is certain: The young will inherit the future we create.

The questions posed by these crucible times gave birth to “The American Next.”  A team from the Missouri School of Journalism traveled across the state from February through May to document the lives of young people – the so-called Millennial generation, roughly ages 16 to 35. All told, we spoke to more than 100 young Missourians. We asked them to share their dreams – those shaped by their childhoods and those they are now forging for themselves.

Many spoke of dreams deferred or redefined – young mothers who will go back to school or back to singing after their children are grown; a shoe store owner who gave up the stage to remain close to family and community, a Somali refugee who, after seven years in the U.S., is still learning what it means to live here. We talked to young people who are thriving through a combination of hard work, careful decisions and inheritance – and to those struggling to pull themselves out of an inheritance of poverty and apathy.

For all their differences, two common themes emerged:

With rare exceptions, all the young people we met said they felt they, as individuals, must create their own support systems. They aren't counting on government or larger society to undergird their lives, so they are making pragmatic choices about work, school, family.

And second, that pragmatism often came tinged with a sense of of resignation or even limitation. We didn't hear the kind of change-the-world idealism that was common among baby boomers when they were young. These young Missourians, if they are speaking for a generation, spoke more of what is than what could be. Yet few seemed discouraged by that; their attitude was one of acceptance and, in most cases, resolve.

We invite you to meet these young people and step into their lives for a few moments with us. We trust you will find them as fascinating and authentic as we did.

The one thing you won't find is a discussion of politics. Our goal was not to gather opinions, but rather to provide a tapestry of life as it is really lived by young Americans. Our hope is that those lives, set against the current political rhetoric, can shed light on how public policy does, or doesn’t, serve the next generation.

Jacqui Banaszynski, who directed The American Next project, is a Knight Chair professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. She is a veteran newspaper reporter and editor, and winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing.