Is Nihilism the Latest Trend Among Millennials?

Elizabeth Ivanecky
Mar 14, 2019 · 7 min read
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Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

I recently finished rereading Ivan Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons,” a book that I first read in high school about 8 years ago. It still resonates with me today, but for different reasons.

While I still appreciate the importance of being empathetic to the fathers and mothers, Turgenev’s snapshot into the nihilism movement during his time is revealing.

It’s difficult to forget the contrarian outbursts of Yevgeny Vasilych Bazarov, a self-proclaimed nihilist, in the novel. Whether or not you agree with him, you can’t ignore him and you can’t help but like him, even if only a little.

When I read the scenes in which Bazarov asserted his challenges against romanticism or admiration for the natural world, it made me think about my generation: the millennials.

Now, sure. If you asked a group of millennials about their thoughts of the environment, I’m sure a majority would express at least some concern for sustainability of our natural world. And I know that many of us love the written word so much that we see feature pieces such as “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” as works of art. It’s true they are nothing less than.

Yet, there is a growing disbelief among millennials of previous systems of authority. The institutions that our parents and grand-parents used to believe in no longer hold the same meaning for us.

More and more millennials are identifying themselves as “nones,” people who have no religious affiliation at all. We push back against the false promises of higher education guaranteeing a better job in the future once we realize how difficult it is to get this better, white-collar job. Those of us that are at that better job are choosing our careers over the need to start a family. At least at places like the Mecca of the tech world: the San Francisco Bay Area.

But does this really all point to an increasingly nihilistic younger generation?

A Beginner’s Guide to Nihilism

Nihilism comes from the Latin word nihil, meaning ‘nothing’ or ‘not anything.’ It is commonly defined as the belief in nothing or a rejection of objective truth, social conventions, and moral meaning.

While the basic philosophical underpinnings of nihilism can be traced back to ancient civilizations who were already skeptical of organized religions, the modern story of nihilism has a logical rise in 1860s Imperial Russia.

The Russian nihilist movement is characterized by a rejection of traditional authorities such as the family, Orthodox Church and Tsarist rule. It was a revolutionary youth movement. The nihilism movement in Russia is best documented in the literature of the time, with pivotal works by Ivan Turgenev and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

As mentioned earlier, Turgenev’s masterpiece “Fathers and Sons” captures the generational conflict between the Russian liberals of the 1830s and 1840s and the emerging nihilists of the 1860s.

Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the Underground,” a story about the incoherent ramblings of an unknown man, are pivotal in depicting the existential crisis that occurs with the belief, or lack thereof, in nihilism and the dream of a utopian society.

These works of literature capture snapshots of nihilism during the authors’ lifetimes. However, characters such as Bazarov or Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov also bridge the gulf between the popular nihilist thinkers of the day, which were Dmitry Ivanovich Pisarev and Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky. These thinkers went on to form the basic underpinnings of a utopian socialist society, which in turn led to the rise of communism and Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov’s “Lenin” Bolsheviks.

That is the political movement of nihilism.

German Nihilistic Worldview

The other aspect of nihilism is the German nihilist movement, largely developed by German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. His nihilism became a worldview rather than a political movement.

Nietzsche argued that Western science and secular humanism “killed God” by proving Him into non-existence. For the German philosopher, nihilism meant that no objective order or structure in the world exists other than the ones we create. Nihilism is inherently destructive as those who hold this worldview give life no meaning. Nietzsche viewed nihilism as a destructive force and even believed it meant the end of European civilization and culture.

Though, Nietzsche also realized that through the destruction of old values, there was the potential for creating new ones. He came to realize that nihilism is a process, not an end in itself.

A Modern-Day Form of Nihilism

While nihilism perhaps isn’t as dramatic as the Russian political nihilist movement or even the German nihilist philosophy, there is a modern-day form of nihilism creeping from the depths of uncertainty in society.

It perhaps is a product of the technological age we live in as well as the fact that millennials don’t hold as strong beliefs and principles for their lives as the older generations do.

Here are a few major characteristics of this modern-day nihilism.

Lack of Religious Affiliation

Millennials have less faith than their parents and grandparents in religion.

However, they are still spiritual. The phrase “spiritual, but not religious” is increasingly popular among millennials. It simply means that they believe in God, gods, or other higher powers, but do not believe in the institution of religion. Today, about one quarter of American millennials identify themselves as unaffiliated both in a religious and secular sense as compared to the less than 10 percent of baby boomers.

The numbers don’t change too much when compared with millennials across the globe. Millennials in 41 countries across the world are less likely to identify with an organized religious group than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. In fact, they are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated.

Historically, the religion that you and your family belonged to became one of your primary communities in your life. As the generations decide to divorce themselves from religious affiliation, parents have to search for a different community to welcome their children into.

Some experts cited the need for individualism among millennials as a contributing factor to their lack of religious affiliation. In individualistic cultures such as America, people place great emphasis on being unique, self-reliant, and individual rights. The needs of the individual supercede the needs of the community.

Rise in Enthusiasm for Work Culture

As religious un-affiliation is on the rise, so too is work culture taken to its logical extreme of hustle culture.

The technology sector in many countries is booming right now — with artificial intelligence, UX design, and cloud computing at the helm. Of course, there’s no better place right now for millennials in the technology sector to work than the tech promised land of the San Francisco Bay Area. Here the tech workers hungry to make a difference in tech feed on the high they get from churning out the latest and greatest tech in the Valley.

But at what cost?

Sure the 80–100-hour work week that Elon Musk boasts about may very well be the latest myth in the Valley. The ridiculous housing market in the Bay Area is not a myth though. The fact that married couples still need to have roommates to support themselves is not a myth. Tech workers living out of their cars is also not a myth.

If you live and work in the Bay Area, at the same time, you’ll most likely be settling down and starting a family later on in life. Today, the average age for first-time mothers in San Francisco is 32.4. If they have a college degree, it jumps to 32.9. Across the country though, the average age of first-time mothers is 26 and for fathers it’s 31.

Having a college degree and paying attention to your career certainly delays the time you’ll be starting a family. Choosing your career over having a family is also your personal choice. If it makes you happy doing it, then power to you.

Yet, perhaps the reason people are more career-driven today is that they lack a strong community that supports them elsewhere.

Growing Mistrust in Traditional Educational Institutions

Parents of millennials have pushed their children to attend college to have a better life than they did. They believed in the guarantee of their children achieving better job prospects than they did.

Today, the average American college graduate will finish their degrees with a massive $37,172 debt in tuition fees.

However, more often than not today, you find millennials struggling to start a career in their industry. Some millennials even abandon their search for a career in their field and find work at a job that didn’t require a college degree.

Instead of pursuing a college degree at all, many young people are trying their hand at entrepreneurship, attempting to bypass the college debt and discouraging job search.

What Will We Be?

When I speak to members of the older generation, many of them convey a similar sentiment of worry for the current younger generation: my generation. They worry about how we will find a spouse in the age of online dating. They wonder how we will pay off our student loan debts on a freelancer’s pay rate. They hope that we will make the right choices as more and more people become morally disillusioned by the need for more wealth, more possessions, and more pleasure.

It’s difficult to say what we will be. Or who we will be.

The facts are on our screens though. One in four people worldwide will be affected by mental illness at some point in their lives. Most appallingly, 10–20 percent of children experience mental illness worldwide today.

There’s no doubt in my mind that we are living in a transition period in human history right now. A technological one at that. One in which we haven’t quite figured out what or who will lead us into the future. We don’t know who we will bow down to or the values we will create.

As we continue to live or struggle to survive, we should keep in mind that there are many generations ahead of us that will need our help in making the right choices to create a better world for them to live in. We should make those generations proud that we were able to work together and achieve something better in our time.

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