“Historians do not call the final ten years of any century ‘the Decadence’ for no reason. It is always a doomed and dissolute time, and the end of the American century will be no different. . . . Generation X got off easy compared to the hideous fate of the poor bastards in Generation Z. They will be like steerage passengers on the S.S. Titanic, trapped in the watery bowels of a sinking ‘unsinkable ship.’ ”
DUE RESPECT to Hunter S. Thompson, who wrote those words in 1994 to describe the fate of the “poor bastards” born at the turn of this century, but it hasn’t been quite so bad. Consider the Americans born in the year 2000, the first natives of the brand-new millennium, who emerged screaming into a future of post-everything possibility, a time of budget surpluses and “the end of history” and this crazy new-ish thing called the Internet that was gonna change everything. They have no memory of a world without cell phones or selfies, climate change or school shootings, and they have no sense of America not at war with others or with itself. It hasn’t been all bad—remember Pokémon Go?—nor has it been all good (obviously). It has simply been a lot, and as these first natives of the brand-new millennium turn 20, that strange way station between childhood and adulthood, it’s only fitting to take stock of where they’ve been and where they’re going.
Below, you’ll meet 20 different men from across America who will have been 20 years old (at some point!) in the year 2020. But as you begin to unpack all those differences, some common threads emerge.
Soon they’ll have their first opportunity to vote in a presidential election, casting ballots in an America that’s rarely felt more polarized. They have different politics, but similar passions, proving that building one’s identity isn’t just a matter of what one believes—it’s what one does with those beliefs.
These 20-year-olds also represent a group who have spent much of their lives carrying around supercomputers with high-definition cameras in their pockets 24/7 without any sense of novelty. To older generations, these massive technological upheavals and sociocultural transitions can feel jarring. But to the 20-year-olds, it’s the same as it ever was.
As we make our way through a year of once-in-a-lifetime events, it’s tempting to look ahead 20 years and imagine marveling at—and perhaps patronizing—a young person who didn’t live through a global pandemic or who has never considered that “Black Lives Matter” was once a controversial statement. Each new generation takes the strengths and weaknesses of previous generations, inheriting both the problems and the progress born of their parents’ selfishness and sacrifice and remixing them into something completely new and original. It’s way too soon to say what these 20-year-olds will one day gift the generation after them, but they’re already forcing the rest of us to rethink how the world works, what the future holds, how we live—and who we even are.