Cat Flag’s Guide to Understanding Millennials: People Who Helped Shape Our Generation

Millennials image from CSU Long Beach

Every generation is, in large part, a product of the times they grew up in. Those times, in turn, are shaped by those in the older generations who make their mark on history, for good or ill. My grandmother’s generation would not be what it is today if it weren’t for figures like Henry Ford or Franklin D. Roosevelt. My parents’ generation came of age in a world shaped by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Neil Armstrong, and others.

It seems to me, then, that any exploration of what makes a generation tick must take into account the figures who helped shape the lives that that generation grew up in. That’s why, for the second part of my miniseries on understanding Millennials, I am going to talk about a few of the people who, in my estimation (read: these are my personal opinions), played the biggest role in making us who we are today.

Shigeru Miyamoto

Shigeru Miyamoto image by Vincent Diamante

Who he is: A video game designer and developer for Nintendo.

How he shaped the Millennials: This is the man who made our childhoods.

Super Mario Bros.? That was his idea. Donkey Kong? He gave us that too. The Legend of Zelda? He drew inspiration for that game from his own childhood. Star Fox? F-Zero? Pikmin? All his. Countless hours of our childhoods were consumed playing his video games.

Super Smash Bros from Dan Dare

For many of us, myself included, our first introduction to video games as a concept was through one of his creations. Who knows how many rainy days we spent playing Starfox or Zelda? Or how many bus rides to and from school were spent on our Game Boy playing Mario? Heck, Mario alone is one of the most recognizable characters in the world today. And from these games, we learned the value of persistence. After all, if we’re honest, how many tries did it take everyone to beat those games? Dozens? Hundreds, maybe? We all probably lost count about the second or third time we ran out of lives.

All I know is that to us, this unassuming, friendly, modest Japanese man is more than a man. He is a legend. Consistently and unquestioningly considered the greatest video game developer of all time, he was even awarded the Prince of Asturias Award by the Crown Prince of Spain.

Here’s a list of the video games Miyamoto has helped to create, to put things in perspective.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Sir Tim Berners-Lee image from John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Who he is: The creator of the World Wide Web.

How he shaped the Millennials: He made the Internet available to everyone.

As I mentioned last time, we are a generation for whom technology comes second nature. That probably would not have been the case without Sir Time Berners-Lee. Although the Internet had been around for decades by the time he came around, it was still very much something that was mainly used by big businesses, universities, the government and military, and hardcore computer nerds. A large part of why it was so exclusive was because it was not easy to use at all. While attempts had been made to simplify it, such as the domain name system (the thing that gives us “”), it still was cumbersome and clunky and user-unfriendly by our standards.

What Berners-Lee did between 1989 and 1991 was introduce two simple yet profound innovations. The first was to create a user-friendly graphical interface for computers to display when they connected, and the second was to link those graphical interfaces with links you could click with your mouse, like this. Those links were the key, because they could present information to the user in the same way people think: by linking ideas together. He called his “web” of links “The World Wide Web”, and the graphical interfaces that they connected were known as “web pages”.

This innovation proved to be a tipping point. Suddenly, ANYONE could use the Internet, and soon enough, everyone was using the Internet. Of course, Berners-Lee did one more thing to make sure his technology got into every computer around the world – he gave his program away for free. He didn’t even patent it. The foundation he set up to keep Web technology updated is a non-profit foundation, and anyone and everyone can use the Web however they wish.

Without the Web, we wouldn’t have Facebook or Twitter, we wouldn’t have or YouTube, and we wouldn’t have Cat Flag.

Thanks, Tim!

Thanks, Tim!

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden portrait from Hamid Mir

Who he is: The now-deceased founder and leader of the terrorist group Al Qaeda and the man behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

How he shaped the Millennials: He scarred us.

I didn’t necessarily say that the people on this list shaped us in a good way, did I? No, the man whose name is now synonymous with evil scarred my generation. And I do think “scarred” is the right word.

I’ve already discussed his impact in some detail before, so I’ll try to be brief. When I was growing up in the 1990s, at least here in America, the ideas of world peace and a beautiful global utopia actually seemed achievable. The Cold War was over, technology was rapidly changing everybody’s lives (see above), and the economy was booming. Sure, things were far from perfect. But it seemed that there was sort of a euphoria over the land as we all counted down to the turn of the millennium, that especially affected kids like me. We were all promised by our teachers and our parents that we could achieve anything we dreamed of, and it certainly looked like we really could.

Then Osama bin Laden appeared to remind us all that evil still exists. Obviously, the closer you were to the twin towers or the Pentagon, the more of an impact the attacks had. Yet everyone across America felt the pain on some level. The attack struck us like a knife, and cut a very deep wound from which we have yet to fully recover, if we ever will. Yes, he was eventually killed by Seal Team Six, and yes, we celebrated in the streets. But I still had to take off my shoes and bring only a few tiny bottles of shampoo and toothpaste with me on the plane to Branson, Missouri last month.

Our priorities changed. Our culture changed. Our politics changed. We basically gave up on world peace and a beautiful global utopia. 9/11 shattered those dreams. Is it any wonder, then, that we Millennials cling to nostalgia?

Barack Obama

President Obama image from Wikipedia

Who he is: The President of the United States of America

How he shaped the Millennials: He has shaped our politics (for better or for worse).

I don’t know why young Millennial voters, many voting for the first time, were absolutely infatuated with this man in 2008. Perhaps it was the fact that he is charming and an eloquent speaker. Maybe it was because young people are generally going to be liberal anyway, and he captured the hearts and minds of the American left-wing. Maybe it was that he promised action on helping us with our mounting student loan debt. Or maybe it was the fact he was the most tech-savvy presidential candidate in the race, with a smartphone and a Twitter account.

Whatever the reason, the Millennial vote was a big part of what put him in office. I remember what a big event his inauguration was. I remember how everybody had such high hopes that this was the man who would remake Washington, D.C. and fix all the problems that the previous three presidents had left behind.

I also remember the massive disappointment with his first two years in office. To be fair, not every Millennial supported him to begin with, and he did maintain a number of Millennials throughout those years for whom he could do no wrong in their minds. For the most part, though, my peers went from the high of seeing “their” candidate win the election to the lows of seeing “their” president fail to accomplish a great many of the things he promised. It was like a hangover, except this hangover cost America a huge number of jobs, failed to end the detention of more than a hundred people without trial in Guantanamo Bay, and gave us a flawed health care “reform” that was really just a patch job.

Yet, somehow, in the second two years of his first term, we came back around to him and helped re-elect him in 2012. Why the change? In part, I think, we grew a little more mature and recognized that no presidential candidate ever delivers everything they promise. In part, I think, we decided to give the other side a try – Tea Party, anyone? – and were frightened by what we got. In part, I think, we recognized that America is changing, that we like many of those changes, and that President Obama is on the side of letting those changes come while his opponents often come across (to us) as trying to block those changes and keep us in the past. Again, I’m generalizing here, and don’t claim that all Millennials felt this way.

As of this writing, I think it’s fair to say that the majority of Millennials broadly support the president and his policies, even if we don’t necessarily agree with everything he says. Will this mean the Democratic Party can rely on a solid bloc of young voters in elections to come? That remains to be seen. What can’t be denied, though, is that President Obama represents, for most of us, our first real experience with politics. First impressions have a very lasting impact.

What do you think? Do you think there are other people that have helped shape the Millennials? Do you agree or disagree with my selections? Let me know in comments!