Hong Kong is witnessing a siege against the Chinese “occupation” and university students have been active participants.
“Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. We’re all going to die. Come watch TV,” says a dejected Morty to his sister, in the animated series, Rick and Morty, on Netflix. The popularity of the show, currently in its fourth season, has much to do with its protagonists who travel through the multiverse looking for adventures.
Rick Sanchez is an alcoholic misanthrope whose unswerving faith in science and staunch denial of a higher being reminds you of Nietzsche’s often-quoted phrase — “God is dead.”
Existentialists realise that though individuals recognise the insignificance of existence, they still search for meaning in their life. Albert Camus would call this the “absurd” — comparing humanity’s quest for “purpose” to the myth of Sisyphus, who is cursed to roll a boulder up the mountain, only to have it roll back down, unto infinity.
This philosophy spread after the end of the world wars. As young men turned into murdering soldiers and the atomic bomb destroyed cities, people were left questioning the sanctity of human life, which could be so easily annihilated.
The individual in advanced industrial, urban societies felt a deep sense of alienation. While the horrors of mass murder could explain the descent of humanity into an “existential crisis”, the recent rise of existentialism in millennial culture — through shows or memes, points to a contemporary “tragedy of our times”.
Perhaps, the tragedy lies in what Arundhati Roy calls “public despair” in The God of Small Things. It concerns itself with the “ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil”.
The world we inhabit is dying. The polar ice caps are melting, global debt is at its highest and countries are beset with violence. Right-wing exponents, the preservers of “convention”, are gaining popularity. Homophobia, religious extremism and territorial conflicts fill the newspapers.
No wonder, “Ok boomer” became the millennial turn of phrase, popularised recently by a 25-year-old New Zealand politician, Chloë Swarbrick. An older gentleman heckled her while she was delivering a parliament speech about the urgency to combat climate change. For this, the heckler was met with the now-viral rebuttal: “Ok boomer”. Swarbrick went on to call it our generation’s “collective exhaustion” with the older generation’s refusal to acknowledge the need for change.
Another popular animated series on Netflix that explores existential themes with its eponymous character is BoJack Horseman. In one of the episodes, BoJack, a washed-up sitcom star, muses, “I’m responsible for my own happiness? I can’t even be responsible for my own breakfast!”
Millennials and Generation Z find comfort in Netflix shows and endless scrolls of social media feeds because it offers a sense of belonging, albeit, to a virtual community. Because reality does not seem to be offering any succour, for the moment at least. A dysfunctional economic system makes it hard to find jobs that do not exploit or undermine our skills.
Long working hours and disproportionately low wages keep pushing us towards a start-up culture, the stability of which remains debatable. Instability in life leads to disruptions in relationships. More so for non-heteronormatives, who must fight for their identities as well. Stress, anxiety and depression have entered our daily vocabulary.
Our generation is often, and if I might add, unfairly, construed as entitled and lazy. However, university students and young adults around the world are out on the streets fighting for what they believe in, their endeavours accelerated by social media. Hong Kong is witnessing a siege against the Chinese “occupation” and university students have been active participants. In Chile, students led the strike against an increase in subway fares, and, closer to home, we are fighting the fee hike in JNU for affordable education in public universities.
Perhaps the recent protests, pride-walks and climate change demonstrations signify the millennials’ reclamation of “purpose” in life after all, as they seek to upset, if not overturn, the conventional order of things.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 9, 2019 under the title “Millennial angst.” The writer, 22, is pursuing a Masters in journalism at the Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication. She was an intern at The Indian Express