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Generation 9-11 makes its debut

Mary Newsom
Mary Newsom, associate editor of the Charlotte Observer, has been writing about growth, development, urban design and urban life since 1995. Write her at The Observer, P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte, NC 28230.

Sure, the economy is still tanking, your house is worth thousands less than two years ago, and you're seeing any possibility of retirement before age 80 fade to black. Time for some positive news:

After years of tut-tutting by middle-aged and older voters, it looks as if young voters are poised to shatter turnout records this election. And if that happens, it probably isn't simply because a relatively young, relatively cool dude (that would be Barack Obama) is running for president.

Welcome to the 9-11 generation.

When Mohammad Atta and his crew plowed planes into the World Trade Center, the towers' fiery collapse jolted all Americans. But for many of us, after a time, life went back to something akin to normal. You've probably now used up that duct tape, eaten the canned food you stashed in a closet, and maybe even gotten used to taking your shoes off at the airport.

But the generation who were preteens, teenagers or 20-somethings absorbed 9-11 into the marrow. It shaped their view of the world, and how they would live their lives.

“We started to think about what are we doing at home? What are we doing in our communities?” Rod Garvin told me. Garvin, 33, is community director for the Charlotte chapter of Generation Engage, a nonpartisan youth-civic engagement initiative. “Young people in particular started asking that question. People in college were rethinking what their life was about. People were looking for a greater sense of meaning and purpose.”

They began, Garvin said, “exploring what it means to be a citizen, what it means to be an American, what it means to be patriotic.”

Watching the Pentagon burn

What he said dovetailed with a conversation I'd had earlier this week with a young Charlotte City Council member, Anthony Foxx, who made public Monday that he intends to run for mayor next year. Foxx, 37, described being in Washington working at the Capitol on Sept. 11, 2001. They heard about one plane hitting the WTC, he said. They heard about a second one, and as people began to learn what was happening, the Capitol was evacuated. As he walked outside, he saw the plume of smoke rising from the Pentagon.

Foxx fell silent a moment. It had been a life-changing moment, he said. It made him think about what was important to him, and what he wanted to do with his life. He came home to Charlotte and ran for council in 2005. And now he's running for mayor.

Last winter, I heard Harvard scholar Robert Putnam talk about the 9-11 generation – a term I hadn't heard until then. Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone,” is a political scientist who studies social capital – the interactions in a community across ethnic, religious and economic barriers.

“The 9-11 generation, with its heightened sense of civic duty and civic engagement, was an explosion waiting to happen,” he said, “and Obama was the perfect spark.”

Potentially record-setting turnout

Next week, pay attention to voter turnout.

In the 2004 presidential election, turnout among voters 18-24 was 47 percent, up 36 percent from 2000, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a nonpartisan group that studies political involvement among U.S. youth. CIRCLE director Peter Levine says turnout among that group this year could be more than 50 percent. If turnout is 5 or 6 percentage points higher than 2004, that would break a record.

“There's no reason to think (young voters) have reached the ceiling,” he said.

Putnam predicts the turnout rate among 20-somethings next week will be higher than has ever been measured, going back to the 1960s, and that in years to come the habit of civic engagement among that generation will persist.

In the long run, he predicts, the 9-11 generation will produce something reminiscent of the Greatest Generation – the Depression- and World War II-era generation lauded for its sense of civic and patriotic duty.

Then, of course, as a scholar would, he pointed out that was only a prediction. And as Yogi Berra reportedly said, it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.

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