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Tuesday, 25 September, 2001, 09:52 GMT 10:52 UK
Generation Y's chance to shine?
A young man is comforted at the site of the ruined WTC
A young man cries near the wreckage of the twin towers
Jonathan Duffy

Until two weeks ago, young Americans had never had it so good. Now, with the US gearing up for an uncertain war, a question mark hangs over their future. Can they take the pressure?

For a week after the attack on the United States, MTV suspended its daily schedule of videos, pop documentaries and celebrity gossip for something completely different.

tagging graffiti related to the WTC collapse
Graffiti related to the collapse of the trade towers
The young people's channel devoted its airtime to talking about how the tragedy had affected its viewers.

And from the feedback received by the station, the effect on MTV's core teenage and twenty-something audience had obviously been profound.

E-mail after e-mail expressed individuals' sense of shock, bewilderment, anger and loss.

Not since Vietnam had Americans witnessed bloodshed among their own people on such a scale. Since then, bar one or two limited wars fought in foreign countries, young people had grown up to know only peace and prosperity.

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So how did they cope with the upheaval of 11 September?

Much of the evidence indicates the young have risen to the challenge.

In the days after the disaster, young Americans beat a path to the door of the Red Cross, which is co-ordinating relief efforts at the site of the collapsed World Trade Center.

Some wanted to volunteer their time, others hoped to give blood.

"You need to be 17 to donate blood, but we had a lot of people come to us who were 15 or 16 who just wanted to do something to help," says Ximena Rua-Merkin, director of the charity's Queens chapter in New York City.

People came to us who were 15 or 16 who just wanted to do something to help

Ximena Rua-Merkin
"The volunteers were willing to do anything - man the shelter for rescue workers, serve them meals, clean the shelter, answer the phones, and transport supplies."

Before long the Red Cross had so many willing hands, it had to turn away new volunteers.

"Our experience has proved that young people do want to help and they are prepared to do anything," says Ms Rua-Merkin.

Prove their mettle

It's a wake-up call for those who doubted the community spirit of the so-called Generation Xers - those in the mid-20s and 30s - says Cam Marston.

New York recruitment centre
Lining up at an Army recruitment centre
"What we have seen here is a desire by the Generation Xers to prove themselves to their elders, who have looked down on them,' says Mr Marston, a consultant on demographics.

If the events of the last fortnight have tested America's youth like never before, then the general view is that they passed with top marks.

"Young people in the US may not have the experience of war and social upheaval that previous generations have faced, but this clearly has not impaired their ability to deal with tragedy," says MTV executive Dave Sirulnick.

Choose youth

But while the resolve of Generation X - sometimes called the "lost generation" - may have been in doubt, demographer Neil Howe believes those even younger were better equipped.

There's no question that the military would do well to have these people on their side

Neil Howe
Mr Howe is author of the 1989 book Millennials Rising, which examines social trends among Generation Y, or Millennials - those born after 1981.

Unlike Xers, Millennials have grown up less cynical, in stronger and safer family units, more trusting of authority and big business, and protected more from drugs and horror movies.

Mr Howe says what happened in New York and Washington is giving the message to children that "they are wanted and their country expects great things from them".

Drafted into service

But exactly how far would they be prepared to go? In the past week America's college campuses have been abuzz with talk of re-introducing the draft.

Peace protester at Union Square
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If that were to happen, Neil Howe believes the military should miss out the "Xers" altogether, and go straight for the "Ys".

"Community service is mainstream for children this age. They do it at college. They are constantly learning the value of group work at school and have the sort of confidence that disillusioned Xers lack."

Also, they are the first children to get used to uniforms, since many American schools adopted school uniforms in the 1990s.

"There's no question that the military would do well to have these people on their side," says Mr Howe.

Liberty or order

Thanks to the likes of zero-tolerance in schools and greater parental control over what children can watch on TV these days, he also believes Millennials would be better able to deal with the curtailing of civil liberties in wartime.

Rafi Santo
Rafi Santo: "I'm a pacifist"
But what do the young people themselves think? At New York University, where students made sandwiches for rescue workers at ground zero and have donated blood, there is little enthusiasm for enlisting in the services.

"My generation was very apathetic up to this point. They've had no cause to believe in. We've been unfeeling and indifferent. This event has great power to bring us together," says 18-year-old fresher Rafi Santo.

But he balks at the idea of having to sign up for armed combat.

Brian Pariente
Brian Pariente: "War would invite more terrorism"
"I'm a pacifist. It's not in my mindset to fight."

Nineteen-year-old Brian Pariente is not about to quit college to take up arms.

"I don't think this is a worthy cause. I think a war would invite more terrorism. I would be prepared to die for my country, but I'd wait for the draft before I signed up," he says.

"I only hope it doesn't come to that."

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