The Defining Fears of a Generation
“What do you want to be if you grow up?” This was the question children asked each other in a tumultuous, bygone era. The epoch of “Duck and Cover” drills, seemingly imminent doom, and an unpredictable future seems, quite honestly, absurd in today’s world. But, exactly how dissimilar was the era’s constant paranoia in comparison to our unrelenting anxieties today? Surprisingly, not very much. Naturally, there are a few variations in our time, but the basics haven’t changed. We’ve traded fears of mushroom clouds for mass shootings. Exchanged “Duck and Cover” drills for active shooter practice. But one thing remains constant, we aren’t sure if we’ll make it home from school. In the 1950s, schoolchildren were simply given one recommendation: “Duck and Cover.” At least today, the advice has gotten a bit more creative. In 5th grade, I was told to “throw my heaviest textbook” at the shooter. In 6th grade, that turned into “toss your scissors at them.” New lessons piled on year after year. Memorize the nearest exits. Hide in the closet. Make sure you have an escape plan. With news of shooting after shooting playing on tv, its no surprise that our generation’s fears have accumulated as well. Nonetheless, the fears are completely valid; there’s a better chance I’ll die due to gun violence than a natural disaster, plane crash, or animal attack. My generation has become no stranger to violence and a culture of dread has pervaded our mindsets. So, when we try to study an era analogous to that which we face today, we may be able to learn about the psychological toll of constant dread.
So, are the anxieties of children and teens today really comparable to the concerns of the Cold War era? Well, let’s just take a look at the data. At the end of the 1950s, 60 percent of American children reported having nightmares of a nuclear attack. Not far from that mark, Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of American teens are concerned about the possibility of a shooting at their school. Further, in a national YouGov survey, children were found to express more fear of a school shooting than of fitting in or peer pressure, making it their second most prevalent concern at school. Strikingly similar to the reality 70 years ago, these fears have become a new normal. However, in stark contrast to the sporadic crackling radio addresses of the past, we are reminded daily in today’s world why we should be afraid. We face a frightening reality in which bulletproof backpacks are on parents’ school supply lists and they fear sending their kids to school. Paula Fass, a historian at UC Berkely compared the two eras on the basis of the fears they instilled. In the Cold War era, testimonials have taught us that the feasibility of a nuclear attack was a dormant underlying thought, prevalent on everyone’s minds. Today, the possibility of a mass shooting operates in the same fashion, a persistent concern shadowing our day to day lives. Maybe one day, we can look back to our current era as we do the era of the Cold War and wonder how an entire country could live amidst a reality of perpetual dread, of looking over your shoulder.
My generation has known no other reality. We were practically born into an actuality of Columbine, of Sandy Hook, of Parkland. Active shooter drills and news of one mass shooting after another are our normal. We have known nothing more than being afraid to go to movie theaters, to grocery stores, to concerts. Our fears don’t subside when we leave school, we carry them with us to our homes and neighborhoods. But, our normal doesn’t have to stay this way; we have rejected it. We have realized that the toll of gun violence, of weapons of war, of inaction, is not as simple as a growing body count. The toll is a generation who may never know any other reality. A generation forever looking over our shoulders, scared and uneasy. We may grow up to be a scarred generation, laden with tainted psyches and defined by the culture of perpetual dread we grew up in. Today, gun violence/crime is at top of the list of worries among 13-24-year-olds, just as nuclear war was in the Cold War era. However, unlike in the 50s, we don’t have to wait idly by for something to change so we can be less afraid. Our change comes from within. We, as a society, are now at what seems like a cliff. On the verge of reality like it was in the 50s, constantly anxious and fearful. We are on the verge of another generation that asks each other “What do you want to be if you grow up?” and inaction will launch us over the edge.