Baby Boomers. Gen-Xers. Milliennials. Gen Zs. Generations are nice enough for in-group rah-rahs and top-level sorting purposes, but not much else. I know it feels like ages ago, but do you remember the dust-up over “OK Boomer”? Dumb. Hilarious, but dumb. Can we all not simply agree that all generations are lame save for the Greatest Generation? I mean, it’s right there in their name; they won World War II. Case rested.
I start here not as an aggrieved Millennial sick and tired of that word meaning simply “the youngest of them” to the unenlightened, though my knees that ache for no reason and not one but three gray hairs I’ve recently pulled out of head remind me quite loudly that Millennial does not equal “young.” I say it because of the same reason many of us think or say anything these days: the coronavirus.
I’m a new uncle. In talking about my niece, I said to a friend something along the lines of “she’s our very own Gen C baby.” My description wasn’t really acknowledged, and now, thinking back on it, I wonder if it’s because my friend didn’t know what I was talking about.
Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash
I stole the term from an incredibly popular story published last week in The Atlantic. If ever such a designation as “THAT Atlantic article” could be clearly identifying, this is one of those times; that’s how widespread and consumed this article has been for just over a week now. It was written by science writer Ed Yong, and the article is entitled “How the Pandemic Will End.” By sheer power of the headline, it was bound to be widely read and widely shared, for who among us doesn’t yearn for an answer to such a basic but massive question?
This week on Wednesday, a week after the story was published, Yong appeared on the Longform podcast to discuss the article and to talk about what it as like to report it and write it. Along the way, he reminds us why great journalism in moments such as these is vital.
Back on the topic of Gen C, Yong writes in the article:
So, now what? In the late hours of last Wednesday, which now feels like the distant past, I was talking about the pandemic with a pregnant friend who was days away from her due date. We realized that her child might be one of the first of a new cohort who are born into a society profoundly altered by COVID-19. We decided to call them Generation C.
It was my assumption that either 1) everyone (my friend included) had read the article or 2) everyone else in media that has definitely read the article would have used the term “Gen C” in some of their writings during the pandemic. But, according to my search on the Google machine, I was wrong.
Why do I care? Because this is truly essential reading. For me, for you, and for generations to come. And while other books will undoubtedly come along and give a thorough forensic accounting of this time we’re now living through, this piece will stand the test of time (however that will look in 12, 14, 16, 18 years’ time – an archived link on a website? a physical copy of the magazine? a yellowed print-out of the article?) so that my niece, all of two months old, will one day read it and understand a little more about the world at the moment she was born into it. Yong’s next paragraph reads:
As we’ll see, Gen C’s lives will be shaped by the choices made in the coming weeks, and by the losses we suffer as a result. But first, a brief reckoning. On the Global Health Security Index, a report card that grades every country on its pandemic preparedness, the United States has a score of 83.5—the world’s highest. Rich, strong, developed, America is supposed to be the readiest of nations. That illusion has been shattered. Despite months of advance warning as the virus spread in other countries, when America was finally tested by COVID-19, it failed.
My niece, in just two months, is already experiencing an America that’s not as grand as its promises; she was born into an echo of its glory. She will look back at this moment to understand her life. Did America rally from its initial stumbles and lead the world after getting its own outbreak under control? Did the government mobilize like it did to face down the Great Depression or World War II? Will she get to point to this moment as the trough between crests of American greatness? I certainly hope so. But whatever the outcome, whatever her reality, this piece of journalism will present as clear-eyed and wide-ranging an assessment as anything she could find, and it was done from the midst of the crisis; it is the pandemic version of war reporting from the front lines, not a reflective history textbook.
As surreal as it feels to be an adult in possession of the mental faculties to understand that this is life-changing, this moment we’re in, that it will fundamentally alter some (or many) aspects of what’s constituted our “normal” for so very long, it’s just as strange to picture my niece and imagine what her future looks like. I’m hopeful, as any uncle would be. But, as Yong points out, it could go any number of ways:
One could easily conceive of a world in which most of the nation believes that America defeated COVID-19. Despite his many lapses, Trump’s approval rating has surged. Imagine that he succeeds in diverting blame for the crisis to China, casting it as the villain and America as the resilient hero. During the second term of his presidency, the U.S. turns further inward and pulls out of NATO and other international alliances, builds actual and figurative walls, and disinvests in other nations. As Gen C grows up, foreign plagues replace communists and terrorists as the new generational threat.
One could also envisage a future in which America learns a different lesson. A communal spirit, ironically born through social distancing, causes people to turn outward, to neighbors both foreign and domestic. The election of November 2020 becomes a repudiation of “America first” politics. The nation pivots, as it did after World War II, from isolationism to international cooperation. Buoyed by steady investments and an influx of the brightest minds, the health-care workforce surges. Gen C kids write school essays about growing up to be epidemiologists. Public health becomes the centerpiece of foreign policy. The U.S. leads a new global partnership focused on solving challenges like pandemics and climate change.
In 2030, SARS-CoV-3 emerges from nowhere, and is brought to heel within a month.
Maybe, just maybe, one day these Gen C kids, my niece included, will take their place right alongside the Greatest Generation. Our collective responsibility now is to ensure we don’t hamstring them before they can even crawl, let alone walk.
Be decades ahead of my niece and read this piece now to get a grasp of what’s going on right now:
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