When I was in college, I wrote for, and then edited, a student-run satirical newspaper called The Pittiful News. We had little-to-no funding, a fluctuating staff, and medium-to-weak name recognition, but we had a lot of heart. And a lot of despair.
As a fundraising method, we'd frequently try to sell shirts, which were only ever bought by us and our parents. One year, the shirts had the paper’s name on the front and lettering on the back that said, "The pen is mightier than our collective will to live."
That sentiment was present in many of our articles, which ranged from "Local Naive Freshmen Doesn't Know She Wants to be Dead Yet" to "Students Continue to Jaywalk in Hopes of Getting Hit by a Car." There was a general understanding that these feelings rang true to the student population.
In a recent New Yorker piece by Jia Tolentino, "The Promise of Vaping and the Rise of Juul," she investigates why teens have gravitated towards Juul vapes in a bizarre way that's both enthusiastic and apathetic. On whether or not vaping relieves or enhances young people’s anxiety, one college student said "I don't know. ... But everything we do is like Tide Pods. Everyone in this generation is semi-ironically, like, we're ready to die."
One dictionary definition of nihilism is "a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless." The millennial version of nihilism is deadpanning "I need to die" after a long day of school/work/being alive.
There's a whole lexicon of phrases in that vein, used to express nihilistic feelings, like "please murder me" or "I need to die." My favorite personal favorite is "I’m gonna throw myself off a cliff." It's not a real embrace of death, but a way of conveying a sense of blasé despair. An understanding of misery as one of life’s constants.
There are signs pointing toward a rise in mental health problems for parts of the population. A study by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association shows diagnoses of depression have increased significantly for millennials and teens. Others show an increase in anxiety. It feels too on the nose to say "the crazy world we live in” is the cause. But, it is probably because of the crazy, dumb, nonsense world we live in.
There's research showing that, for the first time in history, the older generation is more optimistic than the younger. Usually college graduates are full of bright-eyed kids working toward a house and/or car and/or stable job. People used to get a job and then stay at that job for 30 years and then retire. Now, as entire industries collapse because of cartoon-villains-with-dollar-signs-for-eyes, there is no certainty for future jobs. All jobs are now in constant danger of robot takeover, or Silicon Valley reinvention, or destruction altogether.
There is no certainty, either, for a sense of established sanity. Things that always seemed obvious (Nazis are bad, the President shouldn’t harass women, insult veterans, and mock the disabled) are now somehow up for debate.
Students that graduated around the 2008 Financial Crisis had to watch as long-established norms of stability crumbled. But now, students know that stability is the exception, not the rule. Chaos is inevitable.
Print, for example, is dying, and there's still no way to effectively monetize online writing. I have a job now, but in three years I could end up covering the new Apple tampons for a women's magazine published exclusively on a social-media platform powered by hologram. Maybe I'll be forced to take a job writing tweets for Marie Callender's, because they need to appeal to millennials, who are killing the pot pie industry.
People half-joke that this collective despair is caused by the state of the world. At the end of 2016, there were dozens of articles positing whether or not it was the Worst Year Ever. How quaint, to think that things wouldn't get exponentially worse. It's not necessarily that there's more chaos now than ever before, but more ways to react to it publicly. More ways to react to how other people are reacting. More memes.
For every terrible news item, there is a meme. For every feeling of despondency, there is a meme. Sometimes words just can’t capture certain feelings as well as an 18-year-old screenshot from SpongeBob of a bewildered cartoon crab. The promotion for this issue included a slew of home-brewed memes, like a car salesman slapping the roof of a college student and saying, "this bad boy can fit so much emotional instability in it.”
It doesn’t have to make sense, because neither does life.