Memorial Day 2013: How Millennials Killed the Holiday

This Monday, hundreds of millions of Americans will line local streets in observation of the multitude of Memorial Day parades and celebrations. Millions more will mark graveside ceremonies and adorn the final resting places of America’s military men and women who died while in service to our nation. Hundreds of thousands will stop, pause, and reflect on the meaning of this day and purposefully appreciate the sacrifices a few gave to the many. Okay, stop it. That’s not true. I am not being completely candid. Indeed, my comments are part fantasy and part melancholy reflection of times passed. And I know why.

Representing approximately a third of America’s population, the so-called millennial generation, appears disinterested in their cultural inheritance of Memorial Day, in its original context. With an ever-dwindling direct connection between Millennials and military members and veterans, they simply can’t and don’t relate. 

As Mike Goorhouse of the Holland Sentinel put it, “[w]hile veterans and the importance of military service was on my mind during Memorial Day weekend, I don’t often find myself thinking about these topics on a day-to-day basis. I have grandparents who served in the armed forces but their terms were complete well before I was born … and [n]one of my close friends ever served our country. In short, I have not been directly connected to anyone serving in the armed forces and I doubt my experience is that rare among members of the millennial generation.” 

There was a time of course when a majority of Americans took Memorial Day rather seriously. It was not merely a demarcation of the start of pool season or a marketing gimmick for mattress sales.  It wasn’t even a holiday. It was a day of solemn remembrance. Last year, PolicyMic’s Rick Matthews penned, "How Memorial Day Lost All Its Meaning," which provided a comprehensive history of the day, and a call to return it to its original meaning. 

While parades, ceremonies, and solemn expressions of remembrance do remain in parts of our country, they are slowly fading from the landscape. Consider the argument made by scholars, especially the sociologist Robert Bellah: “the United States has a secular ‘civil religion’ that has incorporated Memorial Day as a sacred event.” 

In a 2010 Pew Forum poll entitled Religion Among the millennials, they found that Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans. One in four members of the millennial generation are unaffiliated with any particular faith. Indeed, millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s). And compared with their elders today, fewer young people say that religion is very important in their lives. And as we know, millennials don’t do religion.

The notion of a day to honor the nation’s military dead is becoming as obsolete as dial-up internet. And as millennials age, there is no indication that this trend will reverse. In my opinion, it can only be resurrected with the support and serious attention of a generation of Americans who have already demonstrated their apathy for such things.

Ironically, the past decade plus of America’s wars, as well as all of the armed conflicts extending back to the Civil War — the impetus for the origination of our Memorial Day by the way — were borne on the backs and with the blood of young Americans — virtually the same age demographic as today’s millennials. How appropriate that our nation’s war dead would someday no longer be honored by the very same people who would have otherwise been lying in those same graves if they would have served.

Memorial Day is dead.

The views expressed here by the author are his own.