Data on millennials’ life-long take on Osama Bin Laden

In an op-ed, a millennial considers some data regarding how the younger generation viewed Osama Bin Laden throughout their lives. While the media has suggested Bin Laden was a key figure in their young lives, this commentator suggests the data regarding his generation’s view of Bin Laden is more mixed:

Let’s start with the media’s attempts to establish Bin Laden’s impact on millennials. In addition to student sound bites and expert testimony, newspapers turned to sociological evidence to support their theories. To show how 9/11 inspired millennials to pursue public service, USA Today cited the increase in applications for nonprofit jobs. (The week before, this would have been proof of our struggling economy.) To show how 9/11 left millennials in a state of perpetual distress, the newspaper cited a Pew survey claiming that 83% of young people sleep with their cellphones on. (The week before, this would have been proof of our declining attention spans.)

Notice what USA Today didn’t cite: data on millennials’ opinions of Bin Laden from before his death. That’s because these data don’t support the narrative of a generation defining itself in the shadow of the Twin Towers. Not too long ago, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation ran a series of focus groups on college students’ attitudes toward 9/11. The foundation asked students to name the most important social or political event of their lifetime. The most common answer was not 9/11 — in fact, it was one of the least common — but the rise of the Internet.

Even data that support the media’s theories stop well short of suggesting a millennial reboot. In 2000, for example, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute reported that the number of freshmen who considered keeping up with political affairs to be “essential” or “very important” hit an election-year low: 28%. After 9/11, that number did bounce back — but only to 39% in 2008, well below the 60%-plus who answered affirmatively in 1966, the first year of the annual poll.

These statistics, I think, capture my generation’s real relationship to Bin Laden. It would be too much to say we had forgotten about him, but it also would be too much to say he haunted or defined us in any real way.

I, too, have heard this media narrative and now that I think about it, the primary data marshaled in support of it were the college student celebrations the night of the announcement of Bin Laden’s death. I would need to see more data on this to be convinced either way but it sounds like an interesting argument. If the media story is incorrect, it seems like it wouldn’t be too hard to put together more data to suggest this is the case. I assume most polling organizations have asked plenty of questions about Bin Laden and terrorism over the last ten years and these organizations could easily break out the data by age. If it turned out that millennials were not terribly impacted by 9/11 or Bin Laden’s death, what would be the reaction of older generations?

The rest of the op-ed contains opinions about the partying reaction of millennials. The public discussion regarding the celebration of and reaction to Bin Laden’s death has been intriguing though it is hard to know exactly what is going on and what it might say, if anything, about the larger American culture. My initial reaction to seeing the college students partying in front of the White House was to think that they were looking for an excuse to party on a Sunday night with school the next day…

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