Be one other best era cast in disaster


To the class of 2021,

I know this wasn’t the senior year you wanted. Most of you are understandably frustrated with the things the coronavirus has stolen from you: canceled or shrunk graduation ceremonies, missing internship and job opportunities, and missed campus experiences and memories that are an integral part of a college education.

But while the circumstances and poor timing have robbed you of those hard-earned rewards, they have also positioned you to move us forward in ways only a few generations in American history have asked for. The COVID-19 threat was the latest in a series of existential crises that we have faced at regular and almost predictable intervals throughout our nation’s history. While it may seem like your calamity to be pushed to the front in this current emergency, it also offers you the opportunity to fulfill your role as a leader in times of danger.

Our first such challenge was the revolt of 13 American colonies against Great Britain. About 75 to 80 years later, the civil war posed the next major threat to our survival. The era that spanned the Great Depression and World War II marked the third time our country had faced a fundamental threat, which was an Allied victory culminated at Appomattox another 75 to 80 years after the Confederate troops surrendered. Our fourth definition crisis arrived last year – on time.

The latest generation of crises

Historians Neil Howe and William Strauss suggest that our country has been shaped by four recurring and repetitive generational archetypes, each of which plays a unique role in this ongoing pattern of crisis and renewal. The last generation of crises grew up during the Depression and led us to victory in World War II. They prevailed because of a collectivist attitude that motivated them to put aside significant differences in order to successfully confront a common group of enemies. You are now known as “The Greatest Generation”.

The era that followed World War II and lasted until the mid-1960s was one of stability and institutionalism, marked by the growth of big government, big business and the accompanying economic expansion. Next came the baby boomers, whose rise meant a shift towards a culture of individualism and nonconformity. For the next two decades, a “me-first” ethos prevailed, which at best allowed creativity and innovation to flourish, but at worst encouraged selfishness and selfishness.

The fourth generation in this process marks the transformation of individualism into a social atomization, which Howe and Strauss call “unraveling”. Historically, these eras have been times when social bonds have become so weakened and our communities so fragmented that we are vulnerable to the next major crisis. And so the cycle starts all over again.

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This makes you the newest archetype of this centuries-long generation sequencing, the newest generation of crises. The coronavirus is a deadly threat to our health, our social cohesion and our lives. The accompanying economic downturn has threatened your professional future and the underpinning of our country’s workforce. The simultaneous debate over social justice and racial relations reminds us that fundamental threats to our ability to function as a society pre-pandemic and will not go away after this health crisis is over.

Forge a post-pandemic future

This may seem like a daunting responsibility, but you are well prepared for this challenge. Many of you have learned the skills of communication, advocacy, and leadership. Others have developed extraordinary technological and scientific knowledge, gained valuable insights into the human condition and culture, and understood the requirements for economic growth and social cohesion. Now is your time to put these skills to the test.

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Most keynote speakers inadvertently let their audience belittle you by referring to you as “our future leaders.” However, at this time of pandemic and social crisis, we do not have the luxury of waiting for you to gradually reach your potential. Just as these three previous existential threats spawned generations of heroic leaders who stepped in before they felt ready, your challenge and opportunity is to create a new, post-pandemic future that will lay the foundation for the next era of American greatness forms.

They have come to be known collectively as “Generation Z”, a somewhat pejorative rejection of your immense skills and remarkable potential. However, if you take on this leadership cloak to help us through the COVID-19 crisis and all that has to do with it, historians will instead honor you as “Generation C,” the youngest greatest generation of our nation.

With best regards,

Professor Dan Schnur

Dan Schnur (@danschnur) teaches political communication at the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Southern California, and Pepperdine University. He is the host of the LA World Affairs Council’s weekly “Politics in the Coronavirus Era” webinar at