The Optimism Series: It's no surprise that Gen Z seems so despondent -- but the earth is not a cold, dead place
Psychology and philosophy student Anders Hoover offers thoughts on why the younger generation still ought to have hope
This opinion piece was originally published on the Reno Gazette Journal website on April 28, 2022.
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, the College of Science has asked researchers across a range of disciplines to share how they remain optimistic in the face of the many challenges of today, particularly within the field of science.
Gen Z seems lost.
Not in any sense of a snide “Kids these days are so X.” No, we seem lost, without hope, despairing. As we matured into adulthood, we inherited the struggles of the millennials — only they are more severe now and get more severe as the years fly by.
What are these struggles that have broken so much of Gen Z? A highly competitive job market in which one must be more qualified for fewer opportunities that pay less than even a generation ago. A suffocating burden of student debt that will likely follow one to the grave. An unaffordable housing market in which rent is bordering on unlivable and buying a house is unthinkable. A political climate in which reason seems a relic of a bygone age and polarization tears apart families and friendships. A climate crisis that looms dark, clouding our futures in a shadow of potential doom.
In the face of all that and more, is it any surprise that much of Gen Z seems so despondent? Many of us lead lives of dismal resignation. It all seems so extreme, so awful, so hopeless, that we breathe a nihilistic sigh and say to ourselves, “Nothing can be done, so why even bother?”
However, here, we must make an important distinction: There is a world of difference between acceptance and resignation. Resignation is characterized by an overflow of negative feeling. One is without hope, despairing, exhausted with the situation or even life itself, probably bitter. Acceptance, on the other hand, is characterized by more positive feeling. One is content, cheerful even, full of vim and vigor, and, importantly, motivated to redirect their efforts elsewhere. While both deal with facing things as they are, there is a crucial difference in mindset. Resignation reeks of a sort of world condemning and life denying, perhaps with a side of ressentiment, while acceptance reminds one of the life-affirming notion of amor fati — "love your fate."
We are now led to another key idea for addressing this “existential vacuum”: meliorism. Meliorism is an idea going back to American pragmatists like William James and John Dewey. It is a middle ground between optimism and pessimism. It is not a miserable, somber resignation, nor is it a blind hope or toxic positivity. Meliorism accepts the reality of the world, however dismal, but maintains a stalwart faith that things can improve, especially if we take action. We ought to be meliorists.
Thus, I cry out to Gen Z and whoever else stares into this abyss: Forsake these nihilistic sighs! Things are grim, yes, but there is hope for improvement. Even if it is hopeless, we must have hope, for, in it, we may find our salvation. Even if there can be no improvement, we must hope and strive, like a tragic hero, for such is a mindset conducive to a fulfilling life, a meaningful life, a good life. Even if a colossal struggle is unwinnable, we must not throw our hands up in desperation, for we can always take smaller steps, baby steps, in our own lives to improve things, even if the impact is minuscule or fleeting. We must accept our reality, however grim, but we cannot resign to it!
The earth is not a cold, dead place, and, for as long as that is true, there is hope for improvement.
About Anders Hoover
Anders Hoover is an undergraduate TRiO Scholar in the Honors College, studying psychology and philosophy.