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Editorial: Individual action defines generations

The demarcation of generations is a popular parlor trick in America.

Tom Brokaw called the children of the Great Depression who were further shaped by World War II the Greatest Generation – American society’s masterwork.

The Greatest Generation was preceded by the Lost Generation, those born between 1883 and 1900, and followed by the Silent Generation (or the Lucky Few), those born between 1925 and 1942, and the Baby Boomers of 1943 to the early 1960s. Then came Generation X (mid-1960s to early 1980s), the Millennials (mid-1980s to early 2000s) and finally Generation Z.

The problem with generational labels has always been that they negate the individual, the same way the blanket use of the word “hero” minimizes the truly heroic actions of individual soldiers, police officers, firefighters, etc. America loves to categorize its citizens, a reflexive defense against inescapable chaos. People are sifted and sorted, then assigned to groups and subgroups, where alliances can be formed and the opposition identified.

But sometimes, especially if you’re a journalist, you get to shake up the jars and isolate the people.

This month, the Monitor has been sharing some of the stories of this year’s graduating class, many of whom achieved success against long odds.

Readers met Lizzie Busby, who decided Asperger’s syndrome wasn’t a good enough reason to miss the Hopkinton High School prom. And Franklin High School’s Carter Henry, who made it clear that obstacles are no excuse to stop working hard. And Delaney Poirier, of Parker Academy in Concord, who came to realize that sometimes all you need is someone who believes in you.

Only time and space placed a limit on the number of people the Monitor could introduce to readers. Everybody, of course, has a story to tell and hurdles to clear. It is these personal stories that form the heart of history and highlight the shallowness of generational labels.

But history is also a scorekeeper, and it needs teams to track. It wants to know how – or even whether – a certain population at a specific moment in time advanced society. Fairly or unfairly, World War II helped define a generation, as did the Cold War, Vietnam, Civil Rights, the AIDS epidemic, terrorism and gay rights. It is the larger issues that become chapters in the American story – and the generations its authors.

There is little doubt that the chapter assigned to the Millennials is climate change. There will be many, many individual stories to tell as the battle progresses, but it is the collective victory or failure to repair the planet that will define the generation. And because there are many politicians who are not in favor of this particular story line, it is up to this new population of voters to make sure misguided lawmakers become footnotes sooner rather than later.

The stakes are clear, just as they were in 1941. It won’t be a clean handoff because it never is, but the baton must be passed to the people of Generation Z so they have the opportunity to live and learn and add to the heart of history while writing its next big chapter.

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