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Is this a defining moment for millennials? | Column
Other generations made their mark during crises. This is our moment, Aakash Patel writes.
Lighter than normal traffic flow in and out downtown Atlanta Monday, April 6, 2020. Gov. Brian Kemp has issued an order to shelter in place in hopes of slowing the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Lighter than normal traffic flow in and out downtown Atlanta Monday, April 6, 2020. Gov. Brian Kemp has issued an order to shelter in place in hopes of slowing the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) [ JOHN BAZEMORE | AP ]
Published Apr. 8, 2020

The Greatest Generation had World War II. The Baby Boomers, the turbulent ‘60s and Watergate. Generation X, 9/11. And we Millennials have the coronavirus pandemic.

This crisis provides our generation -- famously labeled lazy and narcissistic in a 2013 TIME magazine cover story -- the opportunity to permanently shake off our reputation and redefine ourselves as leaders in a forever-changed world.

Our reputation may be the reason why early in this crisis it was assumed we were the people packing the beaches and bars during spring break. In fact, we were born generally between 1981 and 1996, so our age range is roughly 23 to 39. We aren’t spring breakers.

Aakash Patel [Times files]
Aakash Patel [Times files]

We are young adults, building our professional lives and starting families.

Yes, we still like to go to the beach and brunch, and to craft breweries to play cornhole with our kids. But we’re also doctors and lawyers and scientists. We are entrepreneurs and innovators.

We’re the largest generation in American history and its most racially diverse and educated. Our influence has been felt in such cultural turning points as the election of the first black president and the embrace of Gay Pride regardless of sexual orientation.

Our influence is being felt now, with memes that capture universal truths about surviving a stay-at-home order, selfie video hacks for making your own masks and hashtags urging everyone to help “flatten the curve.”

Ideas and values we’ve long promoted are being adopted to help mitigate Covid-19. Organizations that resisted our call to work from home are doing it on a mass scale. Family and friends stay connected through virtual happy hours, and doctors use Zoom for patient consultations. A new sharing economy has people trading rolls of toilet paper for bottles of wine. The potential impact of our calls to protect the planet can be seen with a smogless Los Angeles skyline and clear canals in Venice, Italy.

To those who say we’re “entitled,” I say we began our working lives during a recession, and now we’ll be challenged with supporting our children during another recession or possibly a depression.

In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”

Like the Greatest Generation, it will be up to millennials to lead the way into the future and build on the creativity we demonstrated when we entered the workforce that gave rise to such disruptors as ride-sharing and Facebook.

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Now, we’re faced with the ultimate disruption. As schools and stores and restaurants reopen, we will, in a sense, be rebuilding our cultural and economic institutions from the ground up. The potential is limitless.

In her book Pale Rider, Laura Spinney notes that the Spanish Flu of 1918 contributed to such lasting impacts as the growth of preventive, alternative and government-sponsored health care.

Now as then, our generation can call on lessons learned during this crisis and reimagine everything from education to transportation to health care, and ensure our species and planet thrive into another millenium.

Aakash Patel is president and founder of Elevate, Inc. and chair of the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County.