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Explaining Gen Z’s unsurprising adoption of nihilism

Young people face a world of uncertainty. Climate change, political turmoil, growing wealth inequality, and many more knock-on capitalist trends have caused a rise in nihilistic attitudes. What is nihilism – and how can it both be freeing and oppressive?

Whichever way you look at it, the world faces an ambiguous future.

Regular IPCC reports present a bleak late-century climate, largely destroyed by rising emissions. Wealth inequality continues to grow. The richest ten men doubled their fortunes during the height of the pandemic last year.

The Prince’s Trust found that one in four Gen Zers will ‘never’ emotionally recover from the pandemic and that their overall happiness and confidence is lower than ever recorded.

America is likely to overturn abortion laws soon and LGBTQA+ rights face continual, regressive pressures from the political elite. Ukraine is literally being bombed by a delusional Russian tyrant and nuclear annihilation never feels too far away.

With all these existential threats, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Gen Z is increasingly turning to nihilism to navigate modern life. It’s a philosophy that many young people adopt by default, and can be both euphorically freeing and nauseatingly depressing.

But what exactly is nihilism and, crucially, is it a cultural phenomena we should be worried about?

What exactly is nihilism?

Put simply, nihilism is the belief in nothing. It is the absence of meaning, purpose, or spiritual direction.

Where religion has traditionally used a deity to explain creation, existence, and our universe in general, nihilism is the absence of any higher power. There is no external force that wills our being into existence, nor is there an exterior motive for our reality. We are simply here – and then we aren’t.

This lack of meaning can be applied to all areas of life. Actions taken, emotions felt, positive or negative experiences, are all ultimately for nothing. When asking the question ‘why?’, nihilists have no answer.

Keep in mind that nihilism shouldn’t be confused with apathy, cynicism, or pessimism. Believing in nothing isn’t the same as seeing the universe as inherently evil, or expecting the worst outcome in any situation. It’s also not about whether you care or not about the reality you find yourself in.

Concepts such as good, evil, bad, and anything in between are man-made products of morality to a nihilist. Sentient beings – humans, for example – have constructed a set of values and ideas to explain their existence, but that doesn’t make them real.

Nihilists say that everything is void of substance or meaning. We’ve no genuine purpose, except what we assign ourselves in order to make sense of creation.

The philosophy of ‘nothing’ can be attributed to things other than existentialism, of course.

Political and ethical nihilism rejects the societal construction of behavioural rules, and instead seeks absolute freedom. The concept of ‘nihilism’ in this sense is loosely defined, though it is still just as relevant and applicable as any other well established philosophy.

Why are Generation Z adopting this philosophy?

Honestly, it shouldn’t come as a huge shock to know that Gen Z are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the idea of purpose and meaning.

By every measure, the society we have constructed via capitalism is failing to sustain itself long-term. Every year we are reminded that the Earth is burning, that the rich few are hoarding cash for themselves, that inequality and war will inevitably run rampant across the globe regardless of who’s in charge.

How can anyone expect young people to believe in these systems when they’ve largely caused terror, division, unease, and dread for decades? Why are Gen Z expected to plan for their futures, buy into pension schemes, and carve out careers, when there’s a very real chance they’ll be living underwater by the time they’re sixty?

Nihilism doesn’t give us answers, but it does embrace an acceptance that none of this reality is constructed by purposeful design. Everything we are living through is temporary and fleeting. It’s perhaps this sense of temporariness that appeals to a generation snowed under by anxiety and turmoil.

Interestingly, this empty approach to life has long worried academics. The most famous philosopher associated with nihilism is the late-eighteenth century German critic Friedrich Nietzsche.

While he was both for and against nihilism as an ideology, he argued that its ‘corrosive effects’ would eventually destroy all our convictions and cause a breakdown in human progress. If everyone collectively agreed that our society is pointless, what would be the motivation to continue, to do good, and remain ‘civil’?

With no personal investment in anything, our ability to function as a species would collapse. There would be no reason to try or push on with life as we know it, at least according to Nietzsche.

We’ve already seen this happen with the regression of religion in Western culture. Many societies now have a greater emphasis on individual morality based on personal beliefs. Nietzsche famously called this the ‘death of God’.

Gen Z’s disdain for capitalism and conventional systems could be the start of a similar movement. Rejection of regular jobs, material wealth, celebrity, and capitalist fundamentals could pave the way for entirely new political systems, ones that aren’t orchestrated with any particular purpose.

Nihilism accepts the meaningless nature of life and, despite Nietzsche’s warnings, it could equally create opportunity. Why not create new rules that offer a better, more long-term and sustainable society?

How is it a freeing philosophy?

All this nothing talk is pretty daunting, right? The idea that all our societal progress has been futile and exists as a quick, inconsequential blip, is largely terrifying.

It doesn’t all have to be this way, though. Gen Z’s adoption of nihilistic tropes as a result of failing capitalist systems provide as much freedom of thought and expression as they do dread. If our actions truly mean nothing, then our moral compass and self-worth can be entirely re-invented to fit our experience.

To be a nihilist is to free ones self from societal expectation, cultural convention, and suppressive tradition. Breaking away from constructs and accepting that humanity is not the centre of reality in this way can be extremely liberating, and it’s what’s known as ‘optimistic nihilism’.

This approach to life focuses on the idea that everything, eventually, will disappear. This means that every embarrassment, every worry, every anxious moment or failure, will dissolve into the void of endless expanse like everything else. Nihilism doesn’t tally up your ‘moral’ good and bad deeds, nor does it assign weight to your successes.

If all your achievements and progress is for nothing, then so too are your weakest and worst moments. Many find comfort in this concept; every day is its own, isolated experience, and no two things connect – abstract or otherwise.

We are simply existing, and can decide how we interpret the human experience in any way, free from church, state, government, or any other morality structure.

Philosophers have long worried that a nihilistic awakening could cause our society to crumble but, by equal measure, it could also provide ample opportunity to reinvent everything and anything.

It’s this rejection of so many societal tropes that draws attraction from young people. As a generation that has largely been failed by the systems put in place by leaders of yesteryear, is it surprising that Gen Z are looking for any possibility for something different?