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.