I. A Millennial Story
Why I Am Moving Back to America
“Go East, Young Man.” In 2006, two years out of college, I stepped into my boss’s office and told him “Send me anywhere outside America.” Young and ambitious, I knew there was a huge, changing world out there, full of tremendous opportunities. I graduated from high school in the year 2000, the “Last Class of the 20th Century!”, exclaimed the little t-shirts given to every kid in my kindergarten, and by some definitions the first year of the Millennial generation. What would this new millennium bring?
One week later I was at O’Hare, boarding the longest flight of my short life, bound for Asia. From the moment I landed in Hong Kong, I could feel the boomtown electricity in the air. The world was flat, and powerful forces of globalization were changing the way entire societies interacted. Fortunes were made every day, and — no matter what your race, religion, or nationality — if you had the drive, there were opportunities to shine.
I was determined take advantage of it. I wanted to learn as much about the changing world as possible, and I tried to travel nearly everywhere in the region. Work took me to far-flung corners of the globe, from Indonesia to Kuwait to South Korea, places I had barely considered in my sheltered suburban adolescence. Called back to Chicago after a year, I frequently returned to East Asia. My job is to invest in global economic trends, and every day I could feel my picture of the world growing — Asia was obviously the future. My career was taking off, and I was advancing rapidly at a company at the pinnacle of my industry.
That was until the global financial crisis struck, and my entire division was laid off. Soon I found myself completely lost. Hadn’t I had done everything “right”, everything they said made for a successful young person?
“Go East, Young Man,” they repeated, as Asia quickly regained its footing. Again I listened, still too young to have my own view of what success meant. Searching for opportunity in a world that was rapidly crushing dreams, this time I moved to Singapore, where a once-sleepy port was being transformed into a world-class global city. Before long I was the only American working for the fastest-growing hedge fund in Asia. I came home one Thanksgiving, rented a convertible, and sped through the mountains surrounding L.A. I was back on top of the world!
But a nagging feeling emerged that something wasn’t quite right. It started in conversations with my colleagues in Asia. “Aren’t you glad you escaped America? The West is in permanent decline!” they’d say. “I hadn’t escaped, I’d pursued opportunity- that’s the American way,” I’d counter. “The American System will bounce back like it always has.” Yet my arguments began to ring hollow every time I watched our policymakers bumble, our institutions fall short, our country more divided. I sent my brother a Facebook message after the US debt rating downgrade triggered a stock market downturn. “I nailed that trade, just like I told you!” I bragged, having recognized the market’s vulnerability to a lack of policymaker coordination. “I’m getting laid off again,” he replied, another opportunity closed off. “And you’re well on your way to being part of the 1%.”
My future flashed before my eyes: at best I’d be a rich American living way out in Asia, placing bets on where the world was going — and increasingly disconnected from the reality on the ground. Facebook launched my senior year at Harvard; my graduating class was the first to be “socially networked” for its entire life in the real world. Still, it wasn’t nearly enough. And having a high-end apartment on the river couldn’t possibly make up for my sudden, intensifying homesickness. “Success” meant enormous wealth, and spreading the American model across the planet — didn’t it? I was losing faith, beginning to feel like some sort of traitor escaping the hardship back home as the country struggled to bounce back. Every day I stayed in Asia I was a harbinger of America’s decline.
I searched for answers. On the internet. Looking to make sense of why the world was shifting the way it was, and why now. I started with Google. Which linked to Wikipedia. I kept clicking through articles. Until I found one that finally clicked.
In their ground-breaking 1991 book, Generations: The History of America’s Future, the historians Strauss and Howe trace a revolutionary framework for analyzing the history of the English-speaking world. Going back hundreds of years, they identify a periodic cycle in the way four different generational Types approach the world based on their common coming-of-age experiences during four recurring Eras in history, which together span the length of a long human life:
- There’s the so-called Silent Generation, born during the Crisis of the Great Depression and World War II and entering adulthood during the post-World War II High; the first generation in the cycle is the Artist, with its Beatles and Bob Dylans adapting to their harsh conditions at birth and expressing themselves to the kids born after the war.
- They’re followed by the Baby Boomers, the huge generation born into the post-war High and never knowing an America that wasn’t the global superpower, this Prophet generation has always bent the country to its will due to its sheer size. It highly values individual expression and experimented with many different lifestyles in the Awakening period of the 60s and 70s. Yet it is prone to the ideological wars and distrust of government during its middle-age Unraveling years from the 1980s into the early 2000s — as the economy unevenly booms while social cohesion decays.
- Generation X, the much smaller, post-boom generation that might always be lacking in political weight; as under-protected children during the Awakening they saw the rise of a chaotic world of parental drug use and rising divorce rates, and came of age during the Unraveling as archetypical Nomads, like Kurt Cobain.
But to understand how America became great, we need to understand the generation that built the world we live in today, the world they built coming out of the last major Crisis — the Hero generation of JFK and Ronald Reagan that preceded all three.
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Born during the long, increasingly unequal economic boom from the turn of the 20th century into the Roaring 20s, the Greatest Generation was confronted in early adulthood with a national emergency that began with the stock market crash of 1929 and didn’t end until Victor-over-Japan Day in 1945. It united to win the largest war in history, then went on to build a new global order whose foundations rested on the institutions of the United Nations, NATO, the World Bank, the IMF, and a cooperative global system of trade among the world’s democracies, all of which stood the test of time past their golden years.
As each generation fades into history, a new one rises to take its place, shaped by similar experiences and faced with similar challenges. Now we’re again in a period of great Crisis, beginning with the crash of 2008, and the institutions of the old world order are decaying and under attack. With all the simmering tensions in the world, it’s hard to think that this crisis period will be over anytime soon. But Strauss and Howe define a Hero generation as one born during a time of laissez faire, weak institutions, and distrust in government; a generation that grows up as increasingly protected post-Awakening children, comes of age as team-oriented young optimists during a Crisis, and emerges as energetic and vigorous institution builders in middle age — advocates of economic prosperity and public cohesiveness.
Are Millennials the next Hero Generation?
I can’t get this question out of my mind. Maybe it’s me. Or maybe it has something to do with when I was born. I don’t know if every generation has a question it’s trying to answer, a destiny it might fulfill, but I can’t help thinking this one does. No matter how technologically connected to the world I might be, I realized I was losing my connection with my country — and I can’t help answer my generation’s question living 8,000 miles away from home. I can’t help being optimistic.
I’m typing this on the notepad app on my iPhone, flying from JFK to a connecting flight in Dubai. By my count this is my 35th flight between America and Asia, and I’m sure there will be many more to come. But this time I have a different mission. I’m packing my bags, putting all my stuff in an ocean container, and coming back to America for good.
Jonathan Lerner is moving to New York City.
Submitted to New York Times Op-Ed, September 2012. Rejected.
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Somewhere inside all of us is the power to change the world
-Roald Dahl, Hero Generation