The other day, as part of 9/11 anniversary coverage, I heard a reporter make a more or less off-hand comment that nearly one quarter of the US population was not old enough to remember the events of that day. I don't know about you, but I was a little taken aback at that information. Pick four random Americans... there's a good chance one of them was not alive, or at least not old enough to recall 9/11/2001. Wow. I'm a geezer.
I also thought, "Hmm, what a fun game! Let's play!"
So, in the spirit of making myself feel old (or "special" depending on one's perspective), let's walk through a few historic milestones along with some numbers about who might remember (defined as those being at least 3 years old at the time - yes, that's pretty generous, but there's a chance):
Remember when the current President was elected back in 2008? Not so long ago, right? Right. 86.9% of Americans probably remember that event (so 13.1% do not). Likewise for the start of the Iraq invasion (and the notable poetry of Donald Rumsfeld) - 80.2% probably remember that, which means roughly 20% or about 1 in 5 do not.
Then there's the aforementioned 9/11. The actual figure appears to be that 77.4% of us recall it.
How about a little further back? Would you know what I was talking about if I alluded to a stained blue dress? about 73.1% of you - less than three quarters - would probably have some first-hand recollection of what I was talking about. How about the *first* U.S./Iraq war? "Stormin'" Norman Schwartzkopf and crew? Only about 63.4% of us - fewer than 2/3rds of the country were at least out of diapers back then.
Beyond that point, the numbers start dropping pretty fast... The Iran/Contra scandal in the middle/late 80s? Just over half of currently living Americans, 55.4%, would've had the opportunity to see coverage of that story on the nightly news. Or the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979? I sure remember that - was probably just starting to pay attention to news at that point. Turns out I'm in the company of less than half of the country. Only 47.6% of us were around at the time. Fall of Saigon in 1975 (the last event in this list in which I can count myself)? 42.2% might remember. Watergate? 38%.
Now we start hitting events which one third or less of the current population might recall... the Apollo XI moon landing? 33.6%. The assassination of JFK? now we're under one quarter - 24.9%. The "beep, beep, beep" of that scary Soviet satellite, Sputnik flying overhead? 21.1% - just over 1 in 5 might've been practicing their duck and cover that year.
Then there's something of a cliff in the numbers - some real rarefied air. If you remember the truce being called that stopped the Korean War, you're in the company of just 13.1% of your countrymen.
Do you remember the end of World War II? 7.3% of you do. The start of it? Only 4.2%. How about the end of Prohibition? A whopping 1.8%. For the crash of 1929 and the start of the Great Depression the numbers get a little sketchy because it's under 1%. My best estimate is about 0.8%.
The final event in my list is the end of World War I. 1918 - meaning you were born in 1915 or earlier. You are EXTREMELY special. Approximately 0.01% of the population were around. That *still* amounts to about 55,000 people, which is a lot - just not when compared with 320+ million. However, if you know any of them and their memories are still intact, you might consider seeking permission to ask them a few questions about the past. I bet they could tell you some interesting stuff!
So anyway, what this has meant to me is that maybe what I think of as our "shared American experience" is not quite as "shared" as I thought. We're a product of our times, but the times we're talking about simply are not the same for all of us.