With the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks came the predictable flurry of “where were you when” stories – seemingly everyone has one, and with good reason. 9/11 was surely one of those defining events that changes the way people look at the world and at their fellow human beings.
And the decade anniversary got me thinking: sometime soon our generation is going to run the world, and the way we take on that challenge will be molded by the experiences we’ve been through. What will those experiences be? How are they different in different countries? And will they put us in a good position to be the world’s shepherds?
The What’s Your 9/11? project, which we ran along with our parent organization, the Voice of America, was created to explore exactly those questions. Our goal was to build a living database of the events shaping our generation, as seen through the eyes of those who experienced them.
We opened the question to young people across the globe, and received responses from Bolivia, Armenia, Pakistan, Australia and everywhere in between - every continent except Antarctica, in fact. And, unsurprisingly, they covered a wide range of experiences, which we plotted on this nifty timeline (zoom in or click the + signs to see more).
The most cited event was 9/11 – 27 different people talked about the 9/11 attacks as a moment that defined their lives.
But the impacts they described differed drastically, even among people in the same country:
“If 9/11 had not happened, I may not have learned English, may have not connected to the world, may have not know what is going on in other parts of the world and finally would remain a totally dumb, uneducated and unaware individual.” – Ali, talking about the impact of the fall of the Taliban
“Every day tens of our people die, while the international forces have brought us nothing good.” – Jan, talking about life since international forces began fighting a war in Afghanistan
Other stories described a range of life-altering experiences. And it wasn't all wars and natural disasters - some people talked about positive experiences as the event that most impacted their lives. Here is a sampling of other stories submitted from around the world:
“Much as Armenia was then and continues today to be plagued with corruption, ineptitude, and a lacklustre economy, such barbaric events serve to deepen the frustration with the circumstances on the one hand, while strengthening the resolve of those who care, in particular the younger generation, to work for a better future for the Republic of Armenia.” – Nareg, discussing how young Armenians were impacted by the 1999 parliament shooting
“When everything was over, the streets were a total disaster and many stores were still closed. But aside of being afraid I remember the change that started then, with the president resigning in such a bad manner, I could only imagine what would come next.” – Alejandra, discussing the impact of the Bolivian gas crisis
Rebekka, on how Hurricane Katrina forced her to grow up
Despite discussing a wide range of events, the stories we got showed the universality of human emotion as well. People described how dramatic experiences not only shaped their worldviews, but also crept into their daily lives in unexpected ways - for many, major events created new anxieties, or new habits.
“When I go to work now, I carry everything in a backpack with a water bottle and snacks, and also a mobile phone charger.” – Tatsuo, talking about how after the earthquake in Japan he is constantly ready to flee again
“It just affects the way I think about security, and the way I think about travel, and the way I think about other people. Are terrorists gonna come and kill us? If so, what do they look like? Do they look like me?” – Lindsay, talking about how 9/11 changed the way he looks at other people
“Before 9/11 we could freely practice Islam … But after, I started to look for a place where there was no one, because people would stare at me …” – Immad, discussing how his religious practice has changed since 9/11
So what are the lessons we are collectively taking away from these experiences? Are they making it easier or harder for us to understand each other and work together to make a better world?
Certainly the stories illustrate how dramatic experiences create new fears and worries – sometimes about other people or whole cultures.
They also show a determination among many to make things better in the future.
But in the end, what this project really showed is our sense that we don’t think any of these experiences are what will shape us most.
Time and time again when we asked, on the Facebook page and in forums, what will most define our generation, the response was that we will most be defined not by our differing dramatic experiences, but by our shared experience of growing up in a time of rapid technological change.
We won't be the "9/11 generation" or the "Arab Spring generation" - we're the "Facebook generation," and for better or worse, we are proud of that.