The Generation That Will Save Detroit

Amy Elliott Bragg, author of Hidden History of Detroit and MC/Toastmaster at #DetroitLove

Last week – July 24th, to be exact – was the 312th anniversary of the founding of the City of Detroit. Not too many people were paying much attention, because most people were  too busy discussing the recent bankruptcy filing by the city and offering their not-so-expert analysis, opinion, and insight, regardless of whether they have ever been anywhere near the intersection of  Woodward and Jefferson.

But there were some who cared about Founders Day, as it used to be called, and knew the importance of acknowledgement and celebration. So celebrations were arranged.

I attended one of those celebrations, called Detroit Love, which was sponsored by an organization called Forward Arts  (with assistance from other Detroit non-profits).


During that party – and it was a party – I was struck by the fact that almost all of the people in the room showing their love and concern for the City of Detroit were a lot younger than me. In fact, I was pretty sure that I was the only person over 50 in the whole restaurant, with maybe a handful of people over 35.

Almost all of the celebrants belonged to Generation Y.

This generation of young adults,- also called Millennials, Millenniums, or Echo Boomers – gets a pretty bad rap from some sociologists and scholars. They are derided as Generation “Me”, with experts claiming that they are narcissistic trophy kids with a sense of entitlement.

But when it comes to the City of Detroit, they are the generation that senses the need to do something to ensure that the city has the kind of future it deserves. They are entrepreneurs and educators, preservers and promoters, adventurers and optimists. Look at the list of organizations that Forward Arts gave thanks to in the picture above. Almost all were founded by, or are driven and staffed and nurtured by, Millennials.

The problems that face the City of Detroit, including its recent slide into bankruptcy, are complex. They have been decades, not months or years, in the making. They have been smoldering and festering before the Millennials were born.  Gen Y, like Billy Joel sings, didn’t start the fire.

But Baby Boomers and Gen Xers stand around arguing about how the fire started and the best way to put it out. In fact, on the very same anniversary day as the Detroit Love celebration, somewhere between 70 and 100 lawyers packed into a federal courtroom to attend a hearing and argue about whether or not the Detroit bankruptcy filing was legal. While there was no reporting of the generational makeup of those lawyers, I will lay big money that there were very few from Generation Y.

Instead of arguing over how to put out the fire, those kids are too busy dragging in their fire hoses and optimistically working to save what needs to be saved.

Detroit is not going to be fixed by lawyers in a courtroom or a professional financial manager. Detroit will ultimately be fixed by people who believe in her, and are willing to live, work, and play in her boundaries, investing in and promoting her historical and cultural richness.

Right now the only group that seems to be doing that is Generation Y.

Name That Generation

This is me, a generation or two back, when I was a uniformed patrol officer in a suburban Detroit police department.  When I stopped someone I suspected of drunk driving, it was standard practice to give them a field sobriety test, which consisted of a series of simple mental and physical acuity exercises.  Simple for someone sober, not so simple for the inebriated.  One of these exercises was asking the suspect to recite the English alphabet.

Many times a suspect would start speaking, “A, uh . . .B”, and then stop and look at me and ask, “Can I sing it?”  When I answered affirmatively, the suspect started singing their ABCs to the familiar tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”  You know what I mean.  It’s in your head as you read this.

Baby boomers (like me) learned their ABCs this way.  Sung in sequence.  We learned our Social Security number in order, too. Nine numbers.  So today, when the person at the bank or on the phone asks for the last four digits of your SS number as an identifier, you recite the whole thing, silently or under your breath, before you loudly speak the last four.  Sequences are meant to be recited . . .  sequentially.  We can count backwards from 10 (another part of a field sobriety test), because we learned that as a countdown sequence.  But we can’t say the alphabet backwards without a huge struggle, because you are asking us to remove those familiar letters from their known sequence.

So what does this have to do with generations?

When someone talks or writes about “Gen Y”,  I really have no clue which demographic group they are referring to until I put the letter back into proper sequence.  I have to stop and think about the fact that Y comes after X, and therefore Generation Y is the one born later than Generation X, which by itself is a highly random designation. This is a lot of mental work  for people who have to sing the ABCs all the way through. :)

I was born during the “Post World War II Baby Boom”, the generation commonly referred to as Baby Boomers, often shortened to Boomers. No letters.  No sequences.  Just one highly descriptive name.  I don’t know who decided to start naming subsequent generations by letters, but I would like it to stop. Let’s use  “Millennials”, instead of Gen Y, as some already do.  I don’t care what you call Generation X, as long as it’s something else. They were first referred to as Baby Busters, but maybe that has negative connotations.

What do YOU think?