Professor Jeffrey Arnett, one of the academics shaping the conversation, is careful to parse the term “Millennial” from “emerging adult,” which he coined. While the former is a generational definition—roughly describing those born during the 80s and early 90s and came of age during the Aughts—the latter is a social condition.
Emerging adults feel they stand somewhere between adolescence and true adulthood, which, Arnett says, separates them from the majority of veterans. “I would expect that when veterans come out of the military, they feel like they’re already there,” he said. “They’re not in this in-between state that most emerging adults find themselves.”
Arnett identifies the assumption of responsibility as adulthood’s defining trait. “There’s a certain exhilarating freedom to it,” he says. But for most emerging adults, “there’s a lot of anxiety. So there’s mixed feelings about reaching adulthood for that reason: you’re required to do a lot more, and be more responsible.”
Despite the rigid hierarchy of the military, Arnett says, the veterans he’s interviewed seem more empowered and eager to make decisions than their counterparts. Even if their responsibilities were few, and the consequences of their decisions limited, they owned them entirely.
“They feel like they are given responsibility,” he says. “They have very specific duties to carry out, that they are then held responsible for. They feel a certain autonomy and independence, even within the hierarchy.”
Captain Angie Hatch, a Marine flight officer, has never been allowed to not be responsible. She attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where responsibility is elevated to the level of a religion.
“I don’t really identify with Millennials,” she says simply. Still, she thinks her generation gets a bad rap, and the recent criticism is just one generation critiquing the next. “They complained about how Generation X was horrible. Every generation gets flack from the previous.”
In the Army, says Horton, the rifleman, responsibility comes with the expectation of flawless performance—because failure risks not just yourself, but also others.
“If you’re a part of something, then you can’t fail,” he said. “You’re always going to be successful, because if you fail, someone dies. There’s no other option.”
Cetto understands stress. Stress was waking up in Ramadi knowing that someone would likely try to kill him and his friends. Stress was waking up in the States, out of the Marine Corps for years, and suddenly remembering the men he’d killed.
“When I talk to college kids about stress, I don’t try to put my service out there,” he says. “But finals come by, and they lose their fucking minds about how stressed out there are, and I’m not saying they shouldn’t be nervous, but their lives won’t end if they get a B.”