When Lindsey Zemler was born, it had been a quarter-century since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
She has no “where were you when” memories.
Yet, across the generations, the 26-year-old AmeriCorps member feels a connection to the man who, in the popular imagination, has come to be a symbol for public service and is often lionized as the embodiment of the idealistic optimism of a bygone era.
Kennedy’s famous inaugural invocation, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” has a deep resonance for Zemler, a native of Boulder, Colo. We talked in the lobby of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Yarmouthport, where part of her AmeriCorps assignment is to help the organization’s marine mammal rescue team two days a week.
For Zemler, and many of her peers, there is a burning desire to serve both domestically and abroad in myriad ways — and not just because it has become an educational requirement in many instances.
With AmeriCorps — which some call a domestic version of Kennedy’s Peace Corps — “there’s an element of lifestyle choice. I think we are seeing it as way to engage as a citizen,” she said.
“For me, it’s not just a year of service. It fits into a much bigger picture of how I see my future. And I don’t see my career as being separate from my lifestyle. I see it as intertwined.”
And while she obviously doesn’t speak for her entire generation, which happens to be larger than the Boomer bulge, it is true Millennials volunteer more than previous generations.
As the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death is recognized this week, Zemler’s been thinking quite a bit about the life and times of Kennedy and how they compare with the challenges of this new century.
In the early 1960s, a young, handsome JFK was leading the free world into an exciting era of space exploration. We had emerged as an unrivaled economic superpower, riding a rising tide that would lift all boats. Youthful social movements to expand democracy at home began to flourish. The positive possibilities seemed endless.
But then Kennedy was killed and Zemler realized as she read some of the many recollections sent to the Times by readers, the idealistic innocence of America died with him.
For example, Thomas F. O’Brien Jr. of Brewster wrote to the paper, “an era had passed just as quickly as it had begun.” Barbara Pike of South Dennis described JFK’s assassination as “a terrible lesson to learn that the world was no longer a safe, nurturing place. Life had changed forever!”
And Osterville resident Charles Kitson recalled, “I sort of sensed that the country had reached a turning point, and that has proved to be true.”
Page 2 of 3 - Since Kennedy’s death, poll after poll indicates the mood of the nation has become less optimistic as higher percentages of Americans feel the country is in decline.
Even among the best and brightest we are hearing forecasts of “secular stagnation” for decades to come: the normalization of a permanent economic slump. And the data suggests opportunities for Zemler’s generation are particularly bleak. Though there’s been a drop in the unemployment rate, since 2010, the share of young adults between 18 and 24 with a job (54 percent) is at its lowest since the government began collecting this kind of data in 1948.
Zemler isn’t oblivious to the dismal big picture being painted before our eyes. She also acknowledges she doesn’t yet have a family to raise. For now, she lives on the AmeriCorps stipend in a communal house with other members in Bourne.
And, for now, she’s “very optimistic.”
“I’ve been living abroad for the past few years and I’ve been trying to get a much better understanding of my generation and the future we are going into,” she said. “But I have to say, the reason I’m very optimistic is one, it’s in my nature, and two, it’s a choice. What’s the point of not being optimistic?”
Yes, she’s concerned for many of her peers, especially when it comes to the distraction of social media and the difficulty it presents in forming authentic relationships. But she sees her generation as being “extremely innovative,” and has faith that in the not-too-distant future her peers will learn not to be overwhelmed by technology, but use it collaboratively to lead simpler lives.
Nor does she, who worked in a kibbutz in Israel for several years, think of her generation as being constrained by a national identity.
While many older folks wonder where or when the next JFK or Martin Luther King Jr. will arise, none of her friends seem to be looking for a political savior.
They are much more inclined to look to familial or community role models.
“I honestly don’t think about Obama too much,” she said.
Yet, even as she looks forward to the future, Zemler said, many of her peers are still drawn to the past.
President Kennedy “was a part of that era where a lot of things were going on — people going to space, the Civil Rights movement. Things were new and exciting,” she said.
“It was just a very active and interesting decade and if you ask a lot of people of my generation what decade would you want to live in, they’d probably say the ‘60s.”
Now, you may be as pessimistic as I am about the future. But, Zemler — like 88 percent of her cohorts, according to a Pew Research study called “Young, Underemployed and Optimistic” — raises a profound question: “What’s the point of not being optimistic?”
Page 3 of 3 - Sean Gonsalves can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Sean Gonsalves on Twitter at @SeanGonCCT.