The Massacre Generation

The annual “Mindset” list is an attempt to capture the milieu of the incoming class, offered to faculty and staff as a tool for understanding the new students arriving on campus. The class of 2022, we are told in this year’s list, have always been able to refer to Wikipedia and have lived in a world where same-sex marriage is legal somewhere. The world they know does not include Enron but has always included a vehicle known as a Prius and a television show called Survivor. Most of the 60 factoids on the list are light-hearted, referring to popular culture and some to political events.

But there, at number 4, is an item one could easily miss if breezing through the list. Nestled between the observation about Wikipedia and an image of people appearing to “talk to themselves” in public, is this statement: “They have grown up afraid that a shooting could happen at their school, too.”

A vigil in Parkland, Fla., after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

The class of 2022 has lived in a world where mass shootings are recurring events. They have lived with a fear that it could happen to them at any time.This solemn reality was captured recently in a short editorial in The Washington Post, penned by a young woman who is in her first year at the College of William & Mary. Titled “I am 18. I belong to the Massacre Generation,” the author,  Julia Savoca Gibson, begins with the observation that her entire life has been framed by violence: Virginia Tech (2007), Sandy Hook Elementary (2012), the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando (2016), Las Vegas (2017), and, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh (2018). Utilizing the rhetorical device of repetition, she relays a series of memories:

I remember walking into my high school the day after the Orlando nightclub shooting and seeing one of my gay friends sitting limply in a chair, eyes hollow. I remember sobbing. Often, I remember sobbing. I remember friends’ tears a year later, after the shooting in Las Vegas, and I remember feeling angry that I wasn’t crying. I remember Parkland the most clearly. I remember the silence. No one talked about it the morning after… . I remember talking to my friend Max about how odd it was that no one said anything. I remember him gathering our friends to organize a walkout. I remember walking out, and I remember the silence of the crowd of students standing outside in the March cold. I remember the crackle of the megaphone we used as we read one name of one victim every minute. I remember those 17 minutes. I remember marching, once, then twice, and again and again.

Since reading her essay, I have been haunted by the moniker she assigns her generation. What can “calling” mean to the massacre generation?

Depending as it does on a horizon of possibilities, what can vocation mean to a young person who has so internalized a fear of being shot and possibly killed? How does it impact her aspirations about the future? Her sense of justice? Her assessment of what older generations have allowed?

(“I sadly welcome you to Black America,” read one of the comments following her essay on the Post’s website. An important point, succinctly made.  I don’t recommend reading through the rest of the comments, however, because many are downright mean).

Kyra Parrow, Parkland shooting survivor. Source: Bustle Magazine.

The author ends her piece with a strained note of hope: “I remember filling out my absentee ballot a few weeks ago. I remember voting, hoping that weeks, years, decades from now I’d be able to remember that we changed.” Or is that less a statement of hope and more a call to action?

Living in a state of constant threat can yield a form of PTSD but I will leave commentary on the explicitly psychological aspects to trained experts. Here, I want to tentatively wonder about the more existential threat that is operating, and what it might mean for this generation’s sense of their vocations.

Broadly speaking, I see two avenues that a young adult in the “massacre generation” might go down.

The first is exemplified by the conclusion of the essay in the Post: many students have already or will become politically engaged. This is exemplified by Parkland student Emma Gonzalez, discussed by Shirley Showalter in “Stories that Inspire Courage and Hope.” I have watched a new generation of activists emerge over the last few years, empowered by but also embattled by what can frequently seem to be  “lost causes.” I admire their activism and I share the sentiment of many who say this new generation of activists gives me hope.

As someone who thinks about helping students discern their calling, I wonder about what other talents they might be cultivating or other dreams they could be pursuing. I think of the promising sociology student who regularly takes on the task of organizing this week’s protest or the talented ceramicist who is working to get out the vote rather than putting more hours into his project in the studio. We can frame their political work as part of their “experiential education” but the fact is that their time for exploration has been hijacked by the real threats to their well-being, and they are responding constructively with activist engagement.

Edvard Munch, 1895 Lithograph. Public domain.

I am more worried about students who might be lured by a different kind of response to the sense of imminent threat: the temptation of nihilism. When the future looks bleak and your options seem severely curtailed, the view that nothing really matters can take hold. Why bother planning for a future that may not come?

This could manifest itself in increased drug or alcohol use, or other forms of risky behavior. The many types of entertainment on offer might become that much more appealing (obsessive video gaming, binge-watching television shows, etc.). Alternatively, it could thwart longer-range planning, such as thinking about graduate school, pursuing fellowships or other opportunities for college graduates.

[For a reflection on similar issues, written in the midst of the Pepperdine campus community experiencing the trauma of a shooting and the threat of a wildfire, see John Barton’s “Vocation in a Time of Crisis” – ed.]

For good reasons, we try to pin down the subtle and not-so-subtle changes in each new generation of students, ascertaining lessons for how we need to adjust our recruitment strategies, our campuses, how we teach, how we mentor, etc. Consider a recent study published by the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “The Generation of Students: How Colleges Can Recruit, Serve, and Teach Gen Z.” Drawing upon some of the insights of this study, Jeffrey Selingo describes Generation Z as:

the most diverse cohort in modern American history, one that grew up during the Great Recession and its aftermath, entirely in the era of the smartphone and social media. Today’s students crave value and relevance, they seek campus services over amenities, and they’re near-constant users of Instagram and YouTube.

But, if the first-year student from William & Mary is right, they are also a generation that feels directly under threat, and that factor is potentially even more fundamental to their mindset. As mentors, we need to provide them with venues for naming and reflecting upon that threat, and what it might mean for how they understand their lives, their world, and their futures.

Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015). Currently the Online Community Coordinator, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. 

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