By: John Olds, Executive Director
Gen Z is living through a triumphant American moment of accomplishment and we would do well to appreciate it.
Is America actually the greatest country in the world? Allusions to HBO’s The Newsroom notwithstanding, for Generation Z, our country has endured a panoply of crises in the first decade or two of our lives. The war on terror left our country wondering if we could trust our leaders to lead us into battle to achieve our moral imperatives. A financial crisis in 2008–09 challenged our conviction that America was the land of opportunity — a land with real opportunity that looked out for the little guy. And now, our most recent tribulation: the Coronavirus pandemic — the pandemic that not only took away the most basic forms of socialization but exposed our deepest political divisions. Gen-Z’s particularly tumultuous entrance into the world, our adolescence, and eventual adulthood, has left a generation doubtful that America can effectively fight even the most basic foes: a virus that that crushed the lives and livelihoods of Americans of every stripe.
But there seems to be a change that is afoot. With vaccination rates on the rise, there is an opportunity to change the course of the debate over American greatness. What was once a scientific dream has now become a reality; our country challenged the status quo by developing a safe, effective antidote to the disease that killed a half-million Americans. We did so in record time, and by all accounts, this vaccine has been shown to be incredibly efficacious. Americans can choose to dwell on the constant negativity of the pandemic — pitting neighbors and friends against each other along political lines — or we can choose to celebrate the triumph of American ingenuity.
There has been an overwhelming sense that America had stumbled throughout this pandemic. Whether it was record numbers of deaths, political polarization in response to public health guidance, or a general sense of hopelessness that America could not meet the challenge of a generation. While reflecting on these failures of national solidarity might score political points, it would be foolish to ignore the unimaginable triumph that our great nation has orchestrated. With every shot of vaccine that enters the arm of our fellow Americans, every one of us shares a moment of American greatness. We can choose to look at the last year as a time of loss — loss of togetherness, loss of life, loss of hope — or we can choose to view our recent upswing of life as the latest, greatest example of America getting it right.
Nothing can replace the tremendous loss that Americans, particularly young Americans, have experienced. Lost jobs, lost graduations, and lost moments in time seem to define our generation. We get it; every single time we think that things might break our way there seems to be another hardship that blocks our way forward. But this time it might actually be different. Think of it, this vaccine was developed at the urging of an incredibly divisive Republican administration. This vaccine brought together the best of America’s scientific community, and brought the business community — competitors and friends alike — together to deliver on a life-saving treatment. Then, we saw the logistical management of the vaccine rollout by a Democratic administration. Think of that. Our supposed time of division, anger, and American decline has been upended, even if only for a moment.
It might not have been intentional, but the development of this vaccine comes as the latest example of the fruit of American greatness: Republicans helped, Democrats helped, our greatest minds helped, and our capabilities in logistics prevailed. The institutions of our country, so long plagued by an image of distrust by younger Americans, can change the course of public health and public opinion. And while the political community — the insiders, the swamp — seek to tear down their fellow countrymen as our country heals, there lies an opportunity to rebuild the ethos of American greatness. The idea that our country can meet great challenges seems to be making a comeback. And the divisions and despair that defined the early years of generation Z can be undone, but we have to trust in our nation and our neighbors.
Perhaps I am just a naive, hopeful college senior, but there does seem to be an incredible amount of hope on the horizon. For the groups of Americans who claim that America can do no right, this serves as a counterargument; every shot in the arm, every wedding, graduation, and milestone in between will be the proof. And for those in our country who believe we have no flaws, it will be important to reflect on the failures of our country in 2020 — of which there were many. Nevertheless, as it nearly always plays out, the truth is somewhere in the middle, but the undeniable truth remains that American leadership and grit can be rediscovered with a vial, a needle, and a bandaid.
As we recover from this pandemic, our friends and neighbors will emerge, I hope, more healthy and more hopeful. Despite the plague of negativity, young Americans should know that they, too, are living their very own moment of American greatness. The choice could not be more clear: let’s focus on the future. With a renewed hope in the American spirit, Generation Z has the opportunity to take this newfound optimism to the next level by grappling with the non-pandemic issues of our time. All of these issues can be solved as long as we acknowledge their existence — racial inequities; the threat of climate change; the need for an education system that trains the next generation of citizens and workers; and the specter of economic insecurity. A good place to start on solving the issues of our time would be reflecting on the reality that, no matter how many bumps in the road there may be, America can still do big things the right way.