Don Cunningham: What Torch is Being Passed to This Generation?

By Colin McEvoy on July 9, 2020

This column, written by LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on July 9, 2020. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

My two best friends from high school and I gather each year on the Fourth of July.

There’s food and booze around a swimming pool and enough “Remember when” stories that our wives start cleaning up as twilight sets to ensure the party ends when the last Roman candle descends.

We’ve been buddies since junior high school. We’re now in our mid-fifties. It’s an annual highlight for us, tolerated by our families because they love us.

This year’s gathering was different, just as everything is different now. Aside from the social-distancing and avoiding the hugs and handshakes, nearly all our kids were there. Six of the eight of them — ages 19 to 26 years old. All either members of Generation Z or the youngest of the vaunted Millennials, depending on the birth year definition used.

Whatever you call them, college kids and young 20-somethings aren’t typically eager to be with their parents on one of the year’s biggest party days, especially without their friends included.

The difference this year was one of options. Theirs are limited.

Their lives have been upended, affected more in the short term — and the long — than anyone who survives the virus.

This year’s high school seniors, college students and members of the Class of 2020 will carry the upheaval of this pandemic for a lifetime. Some have lost jobs, left big cities, returned home to live with their parents, missed graduation ceremonies and proms, lost internships, watched job opportunities disappear, were forced off college campuses and restricted from being, well, young people.

At this year’s Fourth of July party there was talk of furloughs, jobs lost, returning to graduate school, questions if campus will reopen or if class will be on a laptop in childhood bedrooms.

There is uncertainty about the future at a time of life when optimism is standard. Regardless of how long the pandemic lasts, it will leave its mark.

It’s not fashionable to feel for the young, because they are young. Their skin is taut, their worries are few and the runway of life is long. It’s common to think all has been good for them.

There are defining moments for entire generations. This generation has had its share.

They were young on 9/11. Their outlooks were forming during the first attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. They were raised with terrorism as a threat, the perpetual war in Iran and Afghanistan, concrete barriers in front of buildings and extraordinary government spending and debt they known they’ll inherit.

Fear, uncertainty and threat is more a part of their young lives than that of any American generation since that which came of age during the Depression and World War II.

At his inauguration in 1961, John F. Kennedy spoke of his generation being “born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” He was born in 1917, fought in WWII and lived during a Cold War with the Soviet Union that threatened nuclear annihilation. That generation knew sacrifice, hard times and uncertainty. It was given the moniker the Greatest Generation for what it endured and accomplished.

The generations that came next were born into post-WWII prosperity. Their parents longed to give them what they didn’t have.

The Baby Boomers and Generation X were raised with hope and optimism, American prosperity, Social Security and booming stock markets. They weren’t raised with today’s hate for fellow Americans, partisan tribal identity, and disdain for government and expertise.

In today’s Internet-based, 24-7 cable news and podcast America, the angry high school graduate with access to a conspiracy theory carries as much clout as a virologist with 20 years of training and experience.

Somehow, out of the generation that gave so much came a new America that hated too much and listened too little. Self-sacrifice has been replaced with self-absorption.

One nation, under God with liberty and justice for all has been replaced with “nobody is going to tell me what to do!” America is too busy hating and blaming each other to realize what it’s showing its kids.

In his Inaugural Address, Kennedy also said, “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans … proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”

In four years, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed. Life didn’t become perfect for all Americans overnight, but that generation was improving what it inherited.

Sadly, much work still needs to be done.

What torch is being passed to this generation? They’re watching.

For my friends and me, it was a gift to have our kids at this year’s party. Their upended lives have been wonderful for us. I’m not sure it’s the same for them.

Despite what they’ve been through – more likely because of it – I have faith they’ll do better for America. Someday Generation Z will likely be known as the Greatest Generation II.

July 2020 Issue of LVStartup Has Been Released

The July 2020 issue of LVstartup, a monthly e-newsletter about entrepreneurs and startups in the Lehigh Valley, has been released. Click here to see the new issue, and [...]

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