Class of ’09

Clockwise from top left: Jonathan Bach, 17; Emily Hughes, 21; David Lamarre, 26; Marielle Rose Torres, 17; Rama Sekhar, 30; Betwa Sharma, 25; Travis Bogosian, 18; and Kelly Bamfo, 11.
Photographs Spencer Hafron

During its limited years on Earth, the Class of ’09 has endured more than its share of insults from the older generation—condemned as MySpace narcissists and entitled lazy-asses, not to mention hookup addicts and/or rainbow-party attendees. Worse, having come of age traumatized by 9/11 and the ugly war that followed, they are graduating just as the economic bubble pops. Who could blame these new graduates if they were, as a demographic slice, feeling put-upon, even downright bitter?

So we asked them. We asked college graduates, grad-school matriculators, and a smattering of fifth-graders heading off to middle school. Among them were first-generation immigrants and wealthy suburbanites, artists and entrepreneurs. We asked more than 200 students in all, following up questionnaires with phone interviews. This wasn’t a highly scientific survey: Among other things, the participants were largely self-selected—not to mention willing to be photographed and quoted. And as with any attempt to analyze across generational lines, the risk of misinterpretation is high. (I remember laughing out loud at Allan Bloom’s 1987 best seller, The Closing of the American Mind, which warned against my generation’s enslavement to the dread Sony Walkman.)

Nonetheless, the results of this imperfect survey were revealing. We were startled by the fact that, circumstances be damned, we found very little bitterness at all—caution, yes; worry too—but judging from the responses to our questions, this is a reflexively optimistic cadre of graduates, feeling, if anything, existentially freed up by this era of radical change. They’re nervous about the job market but figure it’ll sort itself out. They describe their parents with shocking regularity as their “best friends.” They’ve lived online for so long it’s a default setting, one they believe lends them a more global-minded perspective than that of their elders. Their tone overall was more bemused than outraged: “I’m a mixture of excited and nervous for the future,” says Forrest Petterson, a graduating senior at Friends Seminary. “But there’s no point in getting upset, because it’s not the end of the world.”

It’s tempting to chalk this up to the Obama effect: Would these graduates be feeling so sanguine under McCain? While No-Drama Obama is from a different generation, his iconic personality reflects the mood of this survey, from that cool and upbeat pragmatism to his wry emotional middle ground, not to mention a notable unwillingness to dwell on blame. It’s an interesting mind-set to find in the midst of what might seem, to older observers, a time of apocalyptic change, of institutional collapse and chickens coming home to roost.

And yet there may be heartening advantages to such realism, which amounts to a kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy for the graduate’s soul: If you can’t change your circumstances, fix your thinking! Graduates tended to interpret in a positive light what might to earlier generations seem like worst-case scenarios (moving home, say) or terrifying environmental indicators (“This is a pivotal, transformational moment,” says Brooklyn College grad Noam Rubinstein). Rather than rage against the machine, they prefer to hack their own futures. “I was pretty set on getting a conventional job and the usual climbing up the ladder thing,” says Yale School of Architecture grad Dexter Ciprian. “Now I have to think about doing things on my own instead of waiting for things to come to me.”

Perhaps there are downsides to such an even-keeled outlook. (Without outrage, is it possible to keep history from repeating itself?) And yet there is something powerful about the faith these graduates feel, even in the swirl of radical events, that this is not the final wave, and that they have the skills to surf the tumultuous tide instead of being sucked under.

*Not all answers add up to 100 because not all respondents answered every question.

Class of ’09