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Millennials may not earn the title of “greatest generation,” but we have most certainly earned the moniker “first generation.” We are the first to have every stage of our life upended by the powerful and modern mix of climate change, digitization, and globalization — let’s call this the connected world.
As the first generation to grow up in this connected world, we bear the biggest responsibility to take action. Our lived experiences have made clear that the structures and systems of previous generations are ill-suited for the problems of today and for the rest of our tomorrows. We cannot afford to pass the responsibility to reform and update our way of life and system of government to future generations — they are already depending on us.
A glimpse at the last calendar year exemplifies the millennial tradition of being the first to mature in the connected world. For example, my classmates at the Harvard Kennedy School and I have had campus disrupted by unpredictable weather, political protests, and, now, a pandemic. Generations of students have dealt with these issues before, but never in such rapid succession and to such a significant and unpredictable degree.
The chaos of the connected world and the limits of aged institutions and systems are on full display within the walls of a modern classroom. Crazy weather induced, in part, by climate change exposed how so many public buildings are far from ready to withstand the pressures of severe storms — in California, for example, several days of class were canceled at Bay Area schools due to power outages caused by the threat of wildfires. And, sadly, this is just the beginning of institutions attempting to function normally in abnormal conditions.
Our daily exposure to the shortfalls of infrastructure designed decades ago requires increased reliance on digital tools that at once empower us to pursue new opportunities while exposing us to new threats. Case in point: I took the majority of my classes this semester from the comfort (and isolation) of my living room. The convenience of the modern age at once frees us to pursue every whim and explore every idea while simultaneously making it easier to recede from one another, from the communities we need to engage with in order to solve the problems that lie ahead.
COVID-19, doubtless exacerbated by globalization, has accelerated our collective separation from one another. Though the motives behind social isolation are necessary in this context, globalization has generally made it too easy to become self-reliant. As a result, our social fabric is stretched thin — pulled by the forces of one-touch purchases that allow you to never meet the store owner down the street, pressured by social media that pulls your attention away from local issues, and pummeled by new business models that make employees cogs in a global system rather than contributors to community wellbeing.
Restoring and retooling our social fabric and institutions for the modern age is the biggest challenge for the first generation. But I’m optimistic that millennials and other young Americans can rise to the challenge. Though many of the events of recent times have caught us off guard, millennials — especially those in places with as much social and intellectual capital as Harvard — are also the first generation equipped with tools to source knowledge from around the world. We are the first generation to be able to communicate instantly with anyone, nearly anywhere.
And yet we are the first generation in the modern era to not feel assured that tomorrow will be a better day. That lack of assurance should be all the motivation we need to get our act together and rise above petty politics, intolerable inequality, and the ridiculous idea that anyone has the right answer.
Tomorrow will bring even more uncertainty than today. Thankfully, millennials are familiar with this chaos. That’s why I think young Americans are ready to update our communities and institutions to become more resilient and united in this connected world.
Kevin Frazier is a graduate student at the Kennedy School.
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