ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In politics, we make choices based on experience. I don't mean the candidates' experience. I mean ours. What have we lived through? What events have shaped our outlook? Our experiences are personal. They're also cultural, regional and generational, and that's what we're focusing on this week.
I've been speaking with Americans who have only one thing in common - their age - today, 25-year-olds. When you're 25, you haven't lived a lot of history. And if you're a 25-year-old American right now born in the early 1990s, the history you have lived hasn't been a bed of roses. The larger world intruded on your life when you were 10, and it was catastrophic.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We saw the plane on the other side of the building. And there was smoke everywhere. People were jumping out the windows.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The building is falling right now. People are running through the streets.
CHRIS MARTIN: I pointed at the TV, and I said, you know, Mom, someone accidentally crashed a plane into the towers in New York.
SIEGEL: Chris Martin was a fifth grader about to leave for school in Fort Wayne, Ind.
MARTIN: We're kind of scuttling out of the house to go to school, and I said, Mom, someone did it again. Like, how is that possible?
SIEGEL: It was incomprehensible. Ariel Sepulveda was at the Air Force base elementary school she attended near Miami. Kids were being called out of school without explanation.
ARIEL SEPULVEDA: And it was my neighbor, actually, who had to come get me. And I remember asking her, why does everybody have to leave? Like, why is everyone leaving? And she was like, well, you never know what's going to happen. And you know there's, like, an Air Force military base down the street from you, so we just want to make sure that everyone's anything OK.
SIEGEL: We all lived through this, but these were 10-year-old kids. For Timothy Ng, it was unthinkable - buildings in flames in the safe country that his Chinese immigrant parents had chosen.
TIMOTHY NG: That was the confusing part - was, like, this doesn't happen. I've never heard this happening. So there was no context for me to kind of fit this in. Like, what's going on, and why is America in this? Like, I thought wars were a foreign thing. They only happened elsewhere.
SIEGEL: What struck me about these 25-year-olds was that 9/11 didn't so much revise their sense of the world. It began it. And then came war...
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Eleven o'clock.
SIEGEL: ...Two long and indecisive wars, first in Afghanistan. Erika Chaves grew up in the ultimate Air Force town Colorado Springs.
ERIKA CHAVES: That impacted a lot of my friends at their older siblings wanting to serve, being from a military town where we have five different bases. My friends' parents started to deploy a lot more.
SIEGEL: And then Iraq - when the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, today's 25-year-olds were middle schoolers. They trusted their leaders. Again, Ariel Sepulveda who was near Florida's Homestead Air Force Base...
SEPULVEDA: Because I was in a military town, you were supportive of the war, and it was the American thing to do.
MARTIN: Hey, if our government's doing this, it must be the right thing to do. I had this sort of naivety about me but just kind of hoping that it would get resolved.
SIEGEL: That's Chris Martin. First-generation American Timothy Ng...
NG: I trusted the authorities. And at the time, I was very young. I trusted that the president knew more than I knew and that he acted with good intention and this is a public office and that he would do the right thing.
SIEGEL: I kind of hear implicit in what you're saying that those are feelings of trust that you don't still have. Am I right?
NG: Yeah, well, of course, yeah. After that, it's the great betrayal. I kept watching it, like, OK, when are these weapons going to come up? When is the resolution going to happen? When are the people going to, you know, greet us as liberators?
SIEGEL: When Timothy Ng speaks of a great betrayal over the war that didn't quite work out, he sounds a bit like a baby boomer recalling the Vietnam War. But his generation also shares something with people who grew up in the 1930s. When the bottom fell out of the economy, today's 25-year-olds were just nearing the end of high school.
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MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: The Dow closed down more than 770 points. That's the largest one-day drop counted in points ever.
SIEGEL: Some of the 25-year-olds I interviewed said the Great Recession left their households unscathed but not Chris Martin.
MARTIN: My dad had worked at the same company since he had graduated college in the '70s. And so he lost his job that he'd been working for 27 years when I was a senior in high school - so in late-2008.
SIEGEL: Chris had just decided to attend a private college.
MARTIN: And I was unsure of, you know, should I go to college at all? Should I change colleges and change what I plan to do? And my mom went back to work. She had not been working when I was in high school. And it was hard to see my dad struggle without having a job for just a few months. I mean, he was more fortunate than most. He got a job pretty quickly.
SIEGEL: The Great Recession drove Ariel Sepulveda's parents to relocate.
SEPULVEDA: Both of my parents lost their jobs in Florida and moved to Texas so that my dad can start a new business. It was a very unsteady time for me, and I was very much involved in my community, my school programs. So not only was it uprooting our financial stability but my life that I had - I had planned out for myself.
SIEGEL: On her family's ranch in North Dakota, Callie Lindseth's plans were also derailed. She eventually entered college but not right out of high school.
CALLIE LINDSETH: My family definitely did what many farm families did and sold off some livestock and tightened the belt and sold land. And I remember selling land for significantly less than our family paid for it. And it was really difficult. And that's actually the year I joined the military.
My mother, unfortunately, had to go through a lot of my sister and I's college fund to keep us floating. And of course, I joined the military for some different reasons, but I signed up at 17 in 2007 because I thought that this would at least be guaranteeing some sort of a future because for quite a few years, things weren't very great in rural North Dakota.
SIEGEL: Listen to 25-year-olds from memories of a peaceful world and a booming economy that used to be, and you will listen in vain. From childhood on, it's been a time of danger, dissolution and political dysfunction.
But most of the young people I spoke with seem determined to thrive and to help make things better. Some have even taken inspiration from politics. Albrey Brown grew up in Berkeley, raised by a single mother who died of cancer. He was 17 during the election of 2008.
ALBREY BROWN: As an African-American man, seeing an African-American president being elected in our country that we never thought would ever happen - that was the biggest moment in political history for me. It not only got me interested in politics, like, on a whole another level, but it gave me the confidence to say that I can really do anything.
SIEGEL: Callie Lindseth, the rancher's daughter who enlisted in the North Dakota National Guard, deployed to Kuwait and Kosovo, then went to college and became a veterans advocate. She's seen the struggles of returning vets and the desperate poverty of Native Americans on the nearby reservations. All that has changed the way she thinks about politics and society.
LINDSETH: Before, I think, you know, growing up in a small town, you just pick yourself up by your bootstraps, and you just work harder. And you're going to have success, and I'm finding that more and more unfair. People do not have the same foundations for success. Just seeing how bad things got in my hometown and how hard people had to work to try to get out really changed how I address the world now.
SIEGEL: Talk with 25-year-olds, and it's not hard to see the appeal of calls for systemic change or even revolutionary change. If you're 25, the country has been through a rough patch for as long as you can remember. Tomorrow we'll hear from a group of 45-year-olds.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: It almost seemed like our country was unstoppable. We were the power figure.
SIEGEL: They remember coming of age in a country they thought worked a lot better than it does now.
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