History is most often written in terms of inventions and events, revolutions and revolutionary ideas. But it is always essentially the story of people. The New Deal. The new technology. Cubism. Communism. These are tales of individuals, of Roosevelt and Gates, Picasso and Castro. Biography is destiny, often for the entire world. Had Hitler been a better painter--ah, it is a conundrum for the ages.
And so I can predict with what I believe is considerable accuracy this about the century to come. It will be remarkable because its history will be shaped, and written, too, by a group of what promises to be remarkable human beings. The millennials, demographers have named them, born between 1977 and 1994, 70 million strong, the biggest bump in our national line graph since their parents, the baby boomers. These are our children; for my money they are a great bunch. My three are simply better than I was at their age. They are more interesting, more confident, less hidebound and uptight, better educated, more creative and, in some essential fashion, unafraid.
We can say with pride that some of that is because of the world we have created for them. One out of every seven of their peers is black, one out of every seven Latino, and because of that great diversity of population as well as greater openness at school and at home they do not have the lily-white illusions that colored my insular childhood, nor some of the fears of the other that have poisoned our national discourse. They have grown up seeing, and believing, that women are as capable as men. While at 10 my career choices were either mother or nun, Madeleine Albright, Sally Ride, the women's Olympic hockey team and their own moms have rightly convinced millennial girls that their world can be bounded by their talents and not their gender. As this generation grows to adulthood it becomes ever less necessary for gay men and lesbians to follow the old conventions of deception.
Tolerance has made these children, as a group, more tolerant of themselves, of the quirks and foibles, as individual as fingerprints, that lead to interesting and sometimes monumental lives. It has also led many of them to be generous in ways unknown to me when I was young. In Paterson, N.J., nearly a third of the people working on a Habitat for Humanity building project are under 25. In Riverside, Calif., a senior who graduated at the top of her high-school class only a decade after coming north from Mexico started a tutoring program for smart kids with limited language skills. As a child I remember a peculiar little philanthropy called "pagan babies," in which we Roman Catholic schoolchildren adopted some faceless child from some foreign land, renamed her Monica or Theresa, and then showered her with nickels and quarters from our mothers' purses. By contrast my eldest son works at our church homeless shelter, with real people with whom he has a real human connection (and who get to keep their own names).
No great heroism has come along to define these young people as a group, no world war, no wrenching economic catastrophe. But they have created personal valor out of such charity. A survey last year of college freshmen, a sampling of the eldest part of the millennial curve, found that three quarters of them had done some volunteer work in the last year, at schools, in hospitals, for charities and at church. The quality those freshmen said they admired most was integrity, and the people they admired most were their parents.
This is not the conventional wisdom about this generation. Their collective legacy so far is often littered with negatives, even horrors. The small ones are said to be spoiled, overindulged by guilty working parents, powered by the timpani of medication and videogames. The teenagers are associated in the public mind with lewd music, foul mouths and, most terrifying of all, one school shooting after another. And some of this is true. And most of it obscures the truth, particularly if you have the good fortune to know some of the millennials up close and personal.
From one generation to another, the complaint is always the same: they are not like us. This seems more obvious than ever before, looking at these children through the long lens of the 20th century as we leave it. Born after Watergate and Vietnam, gas lines and record albums, heirs to the microchip and the cathode-ray tube, under pressure from parents who are high achievers or who wish they had been, in a world in which seemingly endless choices, good and bad, swirl around them like flakes in a snow globe: they live a life that the one-size-fits-all generations before them can scarcely imagine. I memorized the Baltimore Catechism; to this day I can tell you that God made me to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next. By contrast our kids and their classmates have had endless discussions about whether God exists, whether God has gender, whether a merciful God would countenance AIDS or airplane crashes.
This core generational belief, that there is usually more than one answer for any question, is threatening for their elders, raised on "because I said so." So is the fact that they are not all of a piece. The dutiful son has a pierced tongue. The student-government president dresses like Morticia Addams. Where once we could identify who was who by the college, the color, the crew-neck sweater, now the lines of identity are constantly blurred, in our perceptions and in the stages of their lives.
This is disconcerting, difficult and wonderful. Socratic is better than rote. Discussion teaches more than dictums. And paths set in stone are, we've discovered, often rocky as we move along them. These are the children of peace, prosperity and pluralism. Raising our glasses on the most momentous New Year's Eve of our lives, wondering what the future will bring to America, we can look at them and in large part know the answer. And what we know is good.