College reunions are wonderful things, organic studies of how a generation ages in five-year increments. My generation has long been known for being “programmed,” Achievement Kids obsessed with racking up accomplishments within an at once kaleidoscopic and unimaginative framework of success: the law clerkship, the magazine internship, the McKinsey gig, the summer trip clothing orphans in Malawi.
Ten years later, our jobs — at least for those of us pulled back to campus to reminisce about a high point of the Achievement Kid fantasy — are still pretty bourgeois, anticipated: “I’m a litigator,” was the sentence I heard the most at my college reunion.
And yet it was usually offered in a quiet, even sheepish voice, not one strengthened by pride. There was a humility I hadn’t expected, not from us, we who swaggered off campus ten years ago to the un-shamed banks, the consulting companies boastfully expanding their interventions all around the world, the titanic law firms, Teach for America in its flush of expansion. And I wondered if the 2008 recession and its long shadow — a deep sense of insecurity about both the sustainability and, frankly, the ethics of many of the pursuits we’d grown up looking to as beacons of accomplishment — hadn’t actually shaped us more than 9/11 did.
That event startled but didn’t, for many of us, deeply shake our sense of American exceptionalism and power. We’re cocky post-Cold War kids, the first ever to grow up without any real memory of a time when another country’s power paralleled our own. We were the recipients of a story of cultural triumph that seemed to have reached its God-appointed conclusion, with us as the chosen beneficiaries. A once-off attack couldn’t threaten that; in fact, it subconsciously strengthened it: they hate us for what we have. But the slower unveiling of the terrible inconsistencies, inequities, and uncertainties that actually lay at the foundation of that edifice of ambition we’d dutifully — hopefully — scaled could.
A professor I had coffee with lamented what he called the lack of an “anarchic or revolutionary bone” in any of my classmates’ bodies. Not anarchic, no. But I had many fascinating conversations with people just starting to look past those old beacons of ambition and respond to the sense of systemic crisis dawning on us: a woman thinking of sustainable farming in Arizona. A man starting to work on a politically charged form of stand-up comedy, while keeping his day job. Another man seeking to apply his law training to an urgent matter of public interest. Another woman, still at her own day job, creating a community to support other women investigating their spiritual purpose.
Maybe my generation really will turn out to be a crummy one, felled by brain cancer from overuse of our smartphones and, upon autopsy, found to contain naught but narcissism where our hearts should have been. But I started to wonder if that instinct we have towards dutifully completing tasks — deeply ingrained — might one day be turned towards the huge tasks that await us. “I shall prepare myself and maybe my chance will come,” Lincoln once said; perhaps, just perhaps, all that goal-setting and furious work might be preparation for the day we have to apply the habit to tasks of world-repair outside of ourselves.