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How Millennials Came to Embrace Nihilism
Winters in Kentucky tend to not have a defining characteristic these days. Some years, they're mild and rainy– as it has been this year. Other years, sleet, snow, and freezing temperatures are the norm until well into March.
My sophomore year in college was one of those years where freezing temperatures were the norm. It was such an abnormally cold January and February that so much as walking across campus was a challenge for me, despite being in great shape at the time.
As is fairly common with intense cold in regions that are not adequately prepared to handle the cold, plenty of homes and businesses in the area had pipes freeze and burst. My college was no exception, and a pipe burst in the dormitory in which I lived. When it did, it set off some of the building's alarms– I remember getting ready for class one morning when the fire alarms started going off. It wasn't uncommon for someone to burn popcorn or smoke weed in their dorm room and set off the alarms, so I pulled on a sweater, grabbed my wallet and cell phone, threw the books I'd need for my first class into my bag, and decided to just get to class earlier than usual. It always took the fire brigade a while to give them the all-clear and turn off the alarms, and I didn't want to sit in my room with the alarm blaring all morning.
At the time, I didn't know that the alarms were a malfunction caused by a frozen pipe. I assumed it would be just a routine disruption caused by over-sensitive smoke detectors.
But, two hours later when I trekked through the cold back to my dorm to get the supplies I'd need for the rest of the day, I still wasn't able to go back into my dorm. The burst pipe had triggered a cascade of problems, and maintenance was actively working on making the building functional again. While they worked, they didn't want students in the building, as the water, heat, electricity, and a variety of other services were going to be periodically shut off. I suppose for the college, it was less of a liability to have students linger in the heated common areas than it was for them to let us attempt to retrieve our belongings only to get stuck in an elevator.
I tried to talk my way into the building, pleading with the housing staff at the front door to just let me walk up the stairs to the second floor and grab a few things.
Request denied– I just had to make do with what I had on my person. I didn't have the books or notebooks I'd need for my next class. I needed to change clothes since I was underdressed for the windiness of the day. I couldn't even grab my toiletries and a toothbrush to go freshen up in the showers at the campus gym, which horrified me since I hadn't showered or put on fresh deodorant before traipsing off to my first class.
I remember walking to my car and thinking I'd just go somewhere to waste a couple of hours. As I put my key in the ignition, a thought struck me: we're sitting on a rock that's purposelessly spinning around a ball of fire in the vastness, and it's ridiculous that we get so stressed out when we're ultimately just going to be reduced to food for bacteria and worms and the rock is going to keep on spinning around the ball of fire.
I don't know what it was about my frustrations that day that ultimately led me to the conclusion that nothing mattered and everything was futile, but I distinctly remember that thought being my destination. At the time, it was a comforting thought. My stresses about needing to be groomed and not having the supplies I needed to live up to my reputation as a star pupil suddenly felt pretty meaningless. What did they matter when the whole of existence could be condensed down into spinning rocks, balls of fire, and decaying?
As I've learned to be more attentive to the world around me and get out of my microcosmic view, however, I've realized that I am far from the only Millennial to have thoughts like this. Though diverging somewhat from the foundational ideas of thinkers like Nietzche and Dostoyevsky, I would argue that a bastardized version of Nihilism runs rampant amongst the ways Millennials interact with and view the world.
What is Nihilism?
The term Nihilism comes from the Latin word nihil, which can be defined as "the absence of anything; nothing."
Ideologically, Nihilism rejects absolute truths and objective morality. This is most often viewed in contrast to traditional religious values. The Nihilist rejects the notion of a god or gods that have instilled meaning within creation. The lived human experience is not something that is designed, preordained, or instilled with intrinsic meaning– it simply is a consequence of the world being as it is.
Whereas the religious person interprets the world as having been crafted following their beliefs and following a set pattern or logic that's derived from their beliefs, the Nihilistic view is much like what I felt on that cold February morning when I just wanted to get back to my dorm room: the human experience is just a byproduct of mutated bacteria on a rock spinning around a ball of fire. Within Nihilism, there's isn't a "higher purpose" that people should fulfill.
From there, Nihilistic thought diverges. For Nietzche, Nihilism was a danger to culture and society. It reduced the human outlook to being one bent toward destruction and apathy. Nietzche viewed the arc of society in his time as leading toward "the death of God," in which the element of faith and belief in righteousness was replaced by human capacity.
(To use a metaphor from the Elder Scrolls, he saw it as akin to the Dwemer viewing themselves as the equals of the gods, which ultimately leading to their apparent extinction and absence from Tamriel.)
For other thinkers, and for many who identify with Nihilistic ideas today, Nihilism is instead an opportunity for positivity rather than a force of cultural deterioration. In this vein of thinking, because there are no objective truths or universal morality, communities can define the systems that are most beneficial to their members and can determine the values to which they strive, such as prosperity, comfort, physical pleasures, or dominance.
In one view, Nihilism is an end, whereas the other view sees it as the means to an end.
Why Nihilism Appeals to the Millennial Experience
The term "Millennial" gets thrown around and misused pretty frequently. Often, it's used as an umbrella term for young people, but that usage isn't accurate.
Pew Research Center delineates Millennials according to the following:
In order to keep the Millennial generation analytically meaningful, and to begin looking at what might be unique about the next cohort, Pew Research Center decided a year ago to use 1996 as the last birth year for Millennials for our future work. Anyone born between 1981 and 1996 (ages 23 to 38 in 2019) is considered a Millennial, and anyone born from 1997 onward is part of a new generation.
Looking at folks born between 1981 and 1996, there are a few defining characteristics that are considered to be a part of the Millennial experience.
- In the United States, Millennials have a distinct memory of the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a part of their formative years (most were between the ages of 5 and 20 when it occurred).
- Most do not remember a time in which the United States was not actively engaged in a military campaign in the Middle East.
- A byproduct of the polarization of the US' military engagements has led to a deepened sense of political divide amongst Americans.
- Most Millennials entered into the workforce during a major global economic recession in which opportunities and wages were both suffering.
- Technology, specifically technological development, is a key part of the Millennial experience. Most of us in the older half of the Millennial years remember dial-up internet, corded phones, and payphones as well as the boom of high-speed internet, the birth of smartphones, and the start of the social media revolution.
- Climate change and climate science became major points of conversation and discourse while most Millennials were in school, but were also points of contention and adamant denial outside of academic contexts.
- Debt is a key factor in the opportunities that Millennials perceive. Many Millennials are strapped with exorbitant student loan debts that are difficult, and often impossible, to pay off in a reasonable time frame given the mismatch of current wages and debt payments.
To sum it up, most Millennials do not know a time without war, a time of economic prosperity without suffocating debt, a time in which climate change wasn't a clear and looming threat to our stability and safety, or a time in which Americans could put faith in their political leaders to operate outside of partisanship.
While there have been plenty of positives as well– such as advancements in technology and medicine that improve our quality of life and increasing diversity amongst the population– for most Millennials, the downsides of how our generation has been raised often undercut the positives that have come along as well. For example, the survival rate of people with specific types of cancers has improved dramatically as treatments have become exponentially more effective, but it can be hard to celebrate this advance when a cancer diagnosis means bankruptcy for a staggeringly large number of people and the lack of medical regulation means extreme indebtedness, unemployment, and even the denial of future insurance.
To put it another way, for many Millennials, it's hard to have hope in a higher power or be optimistic brighter future when it seems that every moment of the progress we've experienced has the rug pulled out from under it by a drawback or shadow-side.
The result is an internalized sense of hopelessness and stress about the future. We even see this reflected in the media that the generation before us created compared to what we're creating today. Cartoons and video games about the future that were released in the early and mid-1990s often featured bright colors, advanced technology, prosperity, and global peace. Now, when we write books about the future or project the future into video games, the themes are very different: children fighting to the death in an arena for sport, once-grand societies being reduced to rubble by nuclear war or climate disasters, political corruption, and oppression for all but the wealthiest of the population.
Where our parents had hopes in the future being a utopia, our generation is merely cautiously optimistic that the dystopia we're walking into won't be quite as bad as the dystopias that have been represented in our collective culture.
When you've internalized fear of a dystopian future, it can be a relief to believe that nothing is of any real consequence. You don't have to be stressed about the future when the future doesn't matter because we're all just sitting on a spinning rock until we die, and then we just cease to be. It's a relief to recognize the temporariness of the human experience. All is futile because nothing is gained or lost in the grand scheme of things.
Whether or not we actively recognize our generational tendency to feel this way, it's a cultural undercurrent that manifests itself in everything from our attitudes toward politics (as seen in the multitudes of people who choose to not vote because they see their vote as meaningless) to the memes that we create and share on social media.
What Does this Mean for Millennials?
I would argue that recognize our generation's tendency toward this dystopian version Nihilism can present us with an opportunity to create our own sense of hope.
I see it as being like receiving a diagnosis for an illness that you didn't know you had. At first, it sucks to recognize that you've got an illness to deal with. But, since you know you have to deal with it, you can deal with it.
One of the best things we can do to combat feelings of institutionalized dread is to build communities with shared goals, interests, and aspirations. Community and solidarity are powerful bulwarks of hope. When you know that you're not alone and that other people are invested in your success, it's easier to shift your focus from the roadblocks in your path to the outcomes you can create.
It's a dream of mine to launch a collaborative community of folks who want to help each other live better lives, overcome their emotional roadblocks, and make progress toward the goals that they hold most dear. For me, the thought of building that community is something that gives me hope, gives me drive, and helps me set my sights on a positive version of the future. If I'm being fully transparent, I think that's one of the subconscious reasons I've steadily moved Self-Himprovement into being a growth-focused and personal-development oriented website; I want to find the folks who are as interested in this type of personal growth as I am and turn that into a thriving community.
For people our age (I should point out that according to Google Analytics, 63% of Self-Himprovement readers are between the ages of 24 and 35, so we're predominantly Millennials), it's incredibly easy to believe that our lives lack meaning. But, when we recognize that this is an emotional burden we collectively struggle with, we can have the camaraderie to help each other define new visions of hope and optimism for the future.