My generation, yours, and school shootings

Listen to the segment "Why Gen X'ers don't quite understand school shootings" from the February 24, 2018 episode

It's way too easy to break up Americans into neatly-defined generational groups -- Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and so forth. It's convenient, to be sure, but what it offers in tidiness it generally lacks in usefulness. There's a pretty good argument to be made that we often have much more in common with other people who share other characteristics of our own (things like geography, occupation, education, or even religion) regardless of their age than what we share with other people who happen to be approximately the same age as ourselves.

But there are cases for which generational definitions really do make a difference. And one of those has made itself known in a big way over the last two weeks or so.

As a Gen Xer, I can tell you about all kinds of things I remember from growing up. My parents' giant Zenith console TV. The click of the buttons on the old Heritage Cablevision set-top box (the one with the three channel layers). What it was like to watch the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster unfold while sitting in a classroom. Learning about the Civil Defense sirens and how they could either mean "tornado" or "nuclear attack" -- and then, the fall of the Berlin Wall. The arrival of the first computers in school.

But what I don't remember at all are school shootings. That's because there weren't any. (Not of the high-impact mass shooting events, at least.) The shootings at Columbine High School happened in 1999, which, it is worth noting, was about the time that the very last Gen Xers were graduating from K-12 education.

We can quibble about exactly where one of these "generations" leads into the next, but mass shootings simply weren't on the list of personal, first-hand concerns for anyone really until the Millennials were the only ones left in the classroom.

That doesn't mean a generation is to blame for these events. It means that there are generations like mine that don't have the same perspective on these as the generations for whom these man-made disasters are a personal reality.

I have no doubt that this is starting to shape, more than ever, how the issue is debated in public. There might be five Millennials in Congress right now, depending on how you choose to count them -- the youngest is Elise Stefanik of New York. Stefanik was born in 1984, which means the Columbine killings coincided roughly with her entry into high school.

What I anticipate is that the more people born after her begin to populate Congress -- and they will -- and the more they emerge as leaders in statehouses across the country, the more the tone of the debate over school violence will evolve to match what will be, for them, a personal narrative rather than something they've only known remotely through the news.

It's like noting that my own experience in school was entirely post-Civil Rights Era. Busing and court-mandated integration were things that appeared in my history textbooks as things that had already happened (even if they were, in fact, still underway in some places). That means my experience of school, and consequently much of my perspective on racial integration, was shaped by a different environment than was the perspective of a Baby Boomer. It doesn't confer carte blanche to make my own judgments better or worse than anyone else's -- but it means the experience shaped some of my conclusions.

We are crossing the threshold into a time when people whose experience includes being in school when school shootings were a real thing are entering roles of power and who measure in substantial enough numbers to register as a bloc in the voting booth. And they're also old enough to have children of their own, which converts school shootings into a multi-generational aspect of the American experience.

If something already feels different to you about the debate after the violence in Parkland, Florida, you're probably right. And you would be well-advised to get used to the change, because the generations for whom this issue is personal are on the rise. This isn't a ripple. It's likely to be a sea-change.

 
Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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