Age of evolution: Individuals share historical moments which shaped their generations

World War II, Obama’s election, 9/11, the technology revolution and the Black Lives Matter Movement. These events defined generations.

Regardless of one’s background, people remember these events with pain, grief, fear, hope and joy. These shared experiences create an opportunity for people to come together, recognize each other’s humanity and cooperate in times of need.

A generation is a cohort of people, who are close in age, born and living at the same time. Generations are labeled differently based on their segmented time periods when they were born. There’s the silent generation (1925-1945), baby boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1980), millennials (1981-1996), and Generation Z (1997-2012). All of them lived through different historical events that helped define their generations, leading some to view the world differently based on their experiences.

“Some people might decide to re-evaluate their values, but some people might decide to more strongly commit to the systems and norms they are accustomed to,” Ellen Dulaney, a social psychology professor at DePaul, said.

This is what happened to 95-year-old Robert Al Stark, and many members of the silent generation. They were labeled as silent because they grew up during a time of conformity, where many adhered to traditional roles in society. Many reevaluated their values and their place in society after living through World War II.

At 17-years-old, Stark left Sycamore, Ill. and joined the United States Marines to serve overseas in Honolulu during a time when Black Americans faced heavy discrimination in the armed forces and all over America.

Stark said the coalition of races forced many to learn how to fight alongside each other. He argues it began to chip away at some of White Americans’ thoughts of race superiority which dominated the era.

Stark said he witnessed the maltreatment of Black people within and outside the armed forces, particularly in the south.

“I saw how people had to drink out of separate drinking fountains, when Blacks had to always respond with ‘no sir’, ‘yes sir’ or else,” Stark said. “We said we were for all people, but that wasn’t true. Some were not as free as others.”

With a million Blacks serving in World War II, attitudes slowly began to shift. By 1953, according to PBS, The Secretary of Defense announced that the last all-Black unit was abolished.

Stark said he, and many others in his generation, went against the status quo and learned the importance of treating people with respect regardless of skin color.

The recognition of others’ humanity during a time of adversity was a monumental stepping stone that led people to listen to each other and strive towards social equality in the following years.

Meanwhile, 58-year-old Nelson Acain and his baby boomer generation were defined differently.

Born in the Philippines, Acain said he immigrated to the United States in 1996 because he dreamed of better economic security for his family. He also wanted a more accountable government.

In desire of change, Acain and many of his generation joined the 1986 People Power Revolution. The members held non-violent demonstrations which advocated to overthrow longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcus and restore democracy in the Philippines.

Acain said he recalls people of all kinds who joined the movement: older women, clergy members and even military officers all marched to the capital for a change.

On Feb. 25, 1986, Corazon Aquino was named the rightful elected president. Although Acain did not live to experience democracy under Aquino, a defining moment for his generation was the parallel between the success of the People Power Revolution and witnessing Barack Obama become the U.S. president in 2008.

Acain said he felt a similar sense of satisfaction watching Marcus’ and later Bush’s cabinet leave office.

“The old is out, here comes the new, here comes the younger ones and that is what I had been wishing for back in the Philippines,” Acain said.

Obama’s success made Acain and many people in his generation feel moved. Acain said Obama restored hope in the U.S. and broke the mold of previous American presidents.

“It was so hard for somebody to even imagine—especially if you do not have the money, the connections, the ‘right color’ of the skin—to be able to be elevated in such a position,” Acain said. “But when (Obama) was able to do that, that broke some barriers.”

Just like how movements and elections can bring people together, so can tragic events. Fifty-three-year-old Ruth Peterson is a part of Generation X and can recall vivid memories of the 9/11 attack.

Peterson said she was at home with her newborn daughter when she turned on the TV and felt her heart sink with disbelief at the sight of the towers collapsing.

“You just sat there and watched it with your mouth open,” Peterson said.

The first twin tower was struck and chaos was unveiled in New York City. Firefighters rushed to enter the burning buildings to save lives, police sirens were echoing throughout the city and urgent boat evacuations encapsulated the unforgettable day.

Peterson described 9/11 happening at a time when Americans “felt untouchable” and confident in their nation’s security. The attack shook the nation, yet there was a sense of humanity when Americans were supportive of New York City and its people.

“These experiences can be hard for a generation to overcome, but it does represent an opportunity for compassion and strong bonds to form,” Dulaney said.

Since the event, Peterson said her generation no longer felt as secure. But, at that moment “We were all on one team,” Peterson said. She said unity helped shape them as people.

As for millennials, they experienced the rise of the technology revolution and were defined differently because of it. Growing up, 33-year-old Aaron Evans watched it evolve from the days of AOL instant messenger to Apple iPhones.

As an English language arts teacher at Curie High School, Evans experiences the effects of technology as a millennial distinctly, witnessing the digital divide.

He said he cannot help but consider how inequitable it is that his students are not provided with their own tablets, laptops, or Chromebooks for their academic work. Even as Covid-19 rates surge and in-person classes continue, many are still not provided with their own device.

Evans said he is concerned with some of the disadvantages his current high school seniors will endure in college and future jobs with a lack of technological resources being provided to them.

He said his seniors are “extremely bright, hardworking, and care about their learning.” The lack of resources has resulted in students typing essays on their phones because they do not know how to on a computer.

Evans said having technology also provides easy communication which makes the world a lot smaller and a better place.

The defining moment for his generation is recalling life before smartphones yet also enjoying the ways it connects us to others in a way that people have never seen before.

As for Generation Z individuals, they were raised with smartphones, the internet and social media. This generation has been able to experience major events together through their screens.

Isabel Olivo, a sophomore at DePaul, said she remembers the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 amid the Covid-19 paranoia. She felt paralyzed watching the breaking news on the TV with her mom and remembers most vividly the softness of her tears streaming down her cheeks.

“I didn’t sob, I wasn’t shaking, but no matter what I did, my eyes wouldn’t stop leaking,” Olivo said. “I cried quietly, and silently, because it had happened yet again.” .

Olivo said the killing of innocent Black lives has been an ongoing occurrence in American history but the loss of Floyd helped solidify the idea to people that Black individuals are murdered at a higher rate than any other demographic group.

Social media platforms have significantly helped fuel movements like the Black Lives Matter Movement, and young Black social media users are more likely to use sites like Twitter to engage in political activism according to Pew Research Center.

Olivo said this tragic event binds Gen Z to the older generations who lived through the civil rights movement because of a similar sense of unity when fighting for the equity of Black lives.

The emotional turmoil of this generation has led Gen Z to “ask the kinds of questions people would rather avoid discussing because we understand that difficult conversations need to happen if we want things to get better,” Olivo said.

No matter the historical event, these shared experiences have the ability to change perceptions and create connections, allowing each generation to learn from the previous.