I was driving to work this morning and it seemed to strike me suddenly when I was listening to some old music that my generation, not just my generation but my specific age cohort (the one that graduated college in May of 2001) was the very last group of young people to pass the final hurdle to adulthood in a pre-9/11 world. I was listening to some of the music from that summer and it came back to me what a vibrant and interesting time it was. Right before the attacks the whole world was a vastly different place in a thousand ways, most of which are better than what we've got now. A few things were worse. There was no Facebook or iPhones and wireless broadband internet was still a difficult, clunky proposition. But it's becoming more and more clear to me as I get older that virtually everyone younger than me has little or no memory of a pre-9/11 world.
For them, the adult world has always been a place of limited opportunity and from the time they entered the workforce it's been a hellishly competitive, uncertain place. They don't remember walking into a job interview and not even bothering to ask about benefits because even small companies would have retirement funds, paid time off, and some form of available medical benefits rolled into their hiring package. They don't remember when your ability to rent an apartment, your automobile insurance, and a hundred other things weren't tied to your credit rating, which was fine, by the way, because credit cards only offered you a $2000 maximum and had interest rates under 10%. They don't remember when gas-guzzling SUV's were just a douche-y status symbol that had hypothetical, far-future environmental consequences instead of being a very-immediate genuine economic liability because, though it's still not cool to own them if you don't need them, fuel then in some parts of the country cost $0.97 a gallon. They've never known, and probably never will know, the freedom that cheap, economical air travel brought. They've never known what it was like to board an airplane without having to take their shoes off and face down a Nazi-ish TSA squad rifling through their bags.
Bush had taken office then, but had only been there for about a year and a half. Not really enough time to fuck things up too badly yet and he was still largely riding on the wave of Clinton's administration. We all were more or less puzzled by the bizarre election that had put him there, but since at the time he and Gore were so similarly positioned, not too offensive, not too different, both a little younger and implicitly hipper than George HW and Ronald Regan had been, that most of us who had the vote for the first time in our lives just shrugged our shoulders and voted for whomever we thought would be more fun to get drunk with.
But the kids, the young people that came after us, they don't remember any of this the way we do. They don't remember our glib expectation that the government would forever be certain to follow the constitution and even though the faces might change the ideas wouldn't. The Clinton era had seen a liberalization of the media to reverse the uptight conservative Moral Majority nonsense of the early 80's. Movies and music from the mid to late 90's entered a phase unequalled since the cultural revolution of the 1960's. They wouldn't remember when shows like MTV's "Sifl and Olly", a hilarious, incomprehensible show which was unapologetically just something to stare at when you were stoned at 2 AM, could get a greenlight.
Free speech was catapulted into the twenty first century on the back of a wild-west Internet, which (if you could get access to it, which wasn't the easiest thing in the world at the time) offered virtually limitless avenues for expression and idea sharing. People younger than our cohort wouldn't remember Napster, the first Napster where you could find MP3's of virtually every song ever recorded, downloadable for free. For months universities banned it during the week not because it was illegal, but because it threatened to slow down the networks so severely that regular school business was curtailed.
If course, that's back before universities had completely sold out to corporate America as well. When the first students started getting hassled by the RIAA, the schools actually went to bat for the students and their rights. I have a sinking feeling that, despite the advantage of ten years of history to improve on the quality of their educations, college students today can't even imagine their school having their back like that.
It really hit me when I thought about it for a while how different that time was. You could see it and feel it in everything from the movies and music of those years to the attitudes everyone had in their day-to-day lives. I wonder if in thirty years people will talk about the late 90's the way they sometimes talk about the late 60's. A time of humanistic confusion antecedent to a time of dreary, sober reckoning.