How Gen Z “The Post 9/11 Generation” Deals With an Inherited Memory

According to Beresford Research, the official birth year of Gen Z is 1997—with the last of the generation being born 11 years after the tragic terrorist attacks that took place on 9/11/01. Gen Z has hence been known as “the Post 9/11 Generation.” These kids were too young to remember or experience the event but not too young to go untouched by the aftermath. How does Gen Z deal with a memory they inherited vs. one lived by the generations before them?

10 years After 9/11 

In August 2002, 97% of participants surveyed by Pew Research (Millennials and beyond) remembered exactly where they were when 9/11 happened; 67% said the attacks affected them greatly, and half said the United States had changed in a major way. 55% of those then younger than 30 said they were strongly moved emotionally.

In August 2011—almost a decade after the attacks—97% of adults still remembered exactly where they were during 9/11. However, 75% of adults said that the attacks affected them greatly, and 61% said the country had changed significantly from before the attacks.

Pew Research reported that “A decade after 9/11, most Americans reject the argument that the attacks triggered a “clash of civilizations between the West and the Muslim world.” However, many expressed concerns over the prospects of another attack, as well as the rise of religious extremism in a radical group of Islam. Pew Research highlighted a political divide among the Democratic and Republican parties on the matter.

20 years After 9/11

Change Research conducted a national poll on 9/11 two decades later and found that the day remains sharp in American minds: 98% of voters born before 1996 remembered exactly where they were when 9/11 happened.

Researchers shared an anonymous and poignant quote that highlights impending generational differences. “I was at my desk at work when the Twin Towers were attacked. It completely broke my heart. My niece was born on Sept 11th, and she was in New York celebrating her Birthday. It took us hours to contact her and make sure she was ok. Our employer sent us all out to fill up our gas tanks so we wouldn’t have a problem getting into work the following day. It was a very sad day for our Nation,” said one African-American male senior over age 65 (Democrat). 

Many older Millennials were in high school and middle school when the event took place, and they used the words “shock,” “classroom,” and “walk,” mentioning relationships to others, such as “parent” and “cousin.” Older generations remembered seeing the attacks live on television.

Interestingly, Change Research found that those who were younger at the time of the attacks were the most likely to believe that 9/11 impacted the direction of the country permanently. Among Gen Z voters, 37% believed 9/11 had a greater impact than the Covid-19 pandemic (27%). Electing Donald Trump as president and the 2008 financial crisis followed in significance.

In contrast, 37% of Gen Z participants said the attacks had the greatest impact, while only 26% of Baby Boomers and 19% of the Silent Generation said so.

How Did 9/11 Impact Gen Z? 

But what is the real and personal impact of the September 11th terrorist attacks on Gen Z? The post-9/11 generation has been impacted by the event in different ways. 

Some of the youngest kids of the Gen Z generation go to class in pandemic masks as their families worry about the rise in mass shootings in school, to learn about the event that defines their generation without identifying with it personally. For others, it is far more personal: A relative suffers from PTSD or illness related to 9/11, or they are Muslim Americans who feel the long shadow cast over their communities by the division and bigotry that lurk in the country.

Gen Z Doesn’t Know Much About 9/11

Many who were born as a part of Gen Z say that they don’t know much about 9/11, and it hasn’t had a big effect on their lives. Gen Z has a bigger plethora of worries facing their generation that generations past either didn’t foresee or didn’t handle. USA Today reports that Gen Z is more concerned with the COVID-19 pandemic, mass shootings, climate change, mass shootings, and future financial crises facing their generation now.

Gen Z Was Shaped by 9/11 Loss

Some expressed a sense of being shaped and formed by 9/11, even if they couldn’t pinpoint how it affected them personally. For many Gen Z kids, 9/11 shaped them through generational loss and inherited memory. 

Megan Carr told USA Today that she knew her grandmother “Mimi” was sick as she was growing up, but she never realized why. Her grandmother developed lung cancer after she was assigned to search and recovery efforts. She was sick for most of Carr’s life.

“When she had to go get chemo, I was probably seven, eight. I didn’t want to ever watch my grandma have to go do that. Heartbreaking. It was hard for her to walk,” Carr recalled.

Gen Z Feels The Shadow Cast Over Muslim Communities

One of the first major transformations in the United States post 9/11 was in national security. Muslims and those of South Asian and Arab descent were subjected to racial profiling and worse post 9/11. In June 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a “Special Registration” requirement that specified men from a list of Arab and Muslim countries report to the government to be registered and fingerprinted. The wake of the 9/11 attacks spurred the official formation of the Department of Homeland Security on November 25, 2002, as well as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

It wasn’t until May 2011 that the program was indefinitely suspended by the Obama Administration’s Department of Homeland Security. More than a decade later, Gen Zers who are Muslim or perceived to be Muslim, Arab, or Sikh say that it’s cast a long shadow over their communities.

Muslim Girl reports that Muslim Americans felt “a distinct shift” post 9/11 as they tried to explain that these attacks and the extremism they were based on did not reflect the true teachings of Islam. Those who have fairer skin and don’t wear the hijab can go under the radar until they announce their faith or background; then, the razor edge of Islamophobia cuts.

In 2022, Gen Z Muslim Americans still feel the shadow of this shift. “While the world has grown and healed over time, there are still moments in everyday life where you wonder if you are safe or respected as a Muslim,” Lara Ibrhaim (age 25) told Muslim Girl

Older generations experienced 9/11 live or through a television screen—as did the world. Gen Z bears the emotional weight and cultural burden of an event they didn’t experience. 

Change Research also reported that 47% across generations believed that giving up freedoms to secure the nation changed little to nothing, and 57% of Gen Zers report feeling less safe today as they face social challenges surrounding health care, economic security, climate change, and racial equity—among the ongoing need to mask up and look over a shoulder in the classroom for pops that aren’t the fireworks celebrating American freedom.

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