Sgt. Lazaro Arocha, a 25-year-old native New Yorker, joined the armed forces September 12, 2001, and, after serving in Iraq, is now a Marine recruiter. Mark Zuckerberg, 22, dropped out of Harvard University to run facebook.com, the popular social networking Web site that he created.
At the age of 24, Cole Carpenter is taking over his grandfather’s farm in Leoti, Kansas, dedicating himself to a difficult life at the mercy of the elements but improving his chances by installing GPS systems to guide his farming equipment. Roxanne Nance, 19, currently resides in the bible belt of Oklahoma, but was in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, an experience that has affected her faith in elected officials.
What do these people have in common? They are all members of Generation Y—42 million people strong, aged 16 to 25. And they are four of the hundreds of Y’s who talked to Judy Woodruff, the veteran journalist, last summer.
Woodruff was traveling around the country in an RV, meeting young people of all backgrounds and situations at college campuses, workplaces and homes, asking them questions and, more importantly, listening to their opinions, and piecing together a portrait of this fast-moving, innovative— yet often stereotyped—cohort. The year-long, Trusts-supported project is called “Generation Next: Speak Up, Be Heard,” produced by Mac-Neil/Lehrer Productions.
Generation Y, also called “millenials,” has grown up in relative prosperity, but lived through many tragedies— the Columbine shootings, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina—that shape their world view. They are now coming of age in a time marked by war and other complex social and global challenges created by older generations, but soon to be passed on to them.
Their own expertise is electronic. Having no memory of rotary phones or record players, they are the first to mature in the digital age, when revolutionary technology becomes commonplace almost at the same lightening speed as the communication it enables.
Indeed, Gen Y enjoys an “e-literacy” that often mystifies, and excludes, their elders. The separation is ripe for misunderstanding. Yet many of them have begun to step into the fray of politics and society. The Generation Next project is giving the older generations insight into this emerging force and creating the potential of common ground across the generation gap.
“I was aware that many in my generation think lightly of this generation,” Judy Woodruff told The Denver Post in August. “And many of [Gen Y] are not focused yet. But we have found a surprising number who are paying attention, thoughtful about what's going on in their community and their relationship with their parents.”
For the tech-savvy millenials, Yahoo! is hosting a feature called “Generation Next: Talk to Power,” a forum located on the Politics section of its Web site where GenNexters interact with people of influence, creating a dialogue between the younger generation and those currently in charge of the country. In its first few weeks, “Talk to Power” featured Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Senator John McCain of Arizona.
There are many opportunities for the rest of us to see what it’s all about. PBS’s News Hour with Jim Lehrer is airing segments on the project this fall, and NPR is working with Woodruff to produce a series of radio profiles on the age group. USA Today reporter Sharon Jayson accompanied Woodruff on parts of her journey and is writing companion pieces both in print and online. In January, PBS has scheduled an hour-long documentary on Generation Next, and the Pew Research Center is planning to release a companion national survey of 16-to-25-year-olds.
More information on the project can be viewed at www.generation-next.tv, which features a blog written by the young people manning the RV, video clips and dialogues on important issues.