The millennial search for meaning in a meaningless world

Alex Garland’s cult novel The Beach, 20 years on

This story went viral, but also interestingly it went viral on Hacker News, a site that is heavily focused on topics pertaining to STEM, with a lot of praise for the book and nostalgia for the period which it was published, the late 90’s–back when good-paying jobs were abundant, there was more optimism, no endless Middle East wars, and the biggest concern was who the President was doing, not the imminent breakdown of society.

The viralness agrees with my earlier observation of how people in STEM not only embrace and appreciate the liberal arts deeply (contrary to the media narrative of liberal arts and STEM always being diametrically opposed), but went to actually do it. They want to understand liberal arts so well that they can become and emulate writers. There’s this huge demand by 20-30-somethings for literary and creative fiction. Part of it is reflective of perhaps a sort of narcissism. But I think it’s also symptomatic of the yearning for meaning and authenticity by young people in a world that has been gutted by consumerism, sentimentalism, media hype, and careerism. Instead of turning to religion for this deeper meaning, they are turning to intellectualism, such as STEM or creative writing.

It’s also why Hunter S. Thomson and David Foster Wallace have seen a huge resurgence in popularity in the years following their respective suicides over a decade ago. Not only did they produce their most import works in their 20’s and 30’s (for Wallace, it was Infinite Jest; for Thomson, it was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), but also the authors and themes of their work embody and personify the sort of ennui and existential anxiety that is so common to young people today: the quest to find oneself in a world that we don’t understand, to make sense of contradictions, the realization that one’s expectations are incongruent with reality, and the conflict between the search for meaning in life and the inability to find it–what postmodernists call the absurd. Whereas popular fiction is plot-driven and intended to provide an escape from reality by creating a fictional one, literary fiction, as well as satire and postmodernism, is intended to hold a mirror to present reality.

But also the escapism: backpacking in Thailand, going on a road trip, or living in alternate universe eerily similar to ours but a lot worse. At the time The Beach was published, South East Asia was undergoing financial crisis. This severely depressed the local currencies, making it cheaper for middle-class Americans and Europeans to travel there, and the locals welcomed the extra money flowing into their strained economies. But for young people today, escapism seems to be through intellectualism and introspection, such as surfing the web, not adventure. As anyone who remembers those annoying AOL disks, the internet was popular in the late 90’s, but did not have the grip on American society as it does today. Popular sitcoms and cartoons at the time didn’t feature computers or the internet–it’s as if as recently as 20 years ago people were able to live without the internet and be fully functional and sane–in contrast to the Big bang Theory, in which the protagonists are sometimes seen browsing the web.

Yet at the same time, this retreat to the solitude of the digital realm is juxtaposed, for many young smart people, with a yearning for the past–but not as in returning to the past, but about revising, restoring, and appropriating valuable lessons, traditions, and customs of the past. The irony is the media and pop culture equates futurism with intelligence, but my observation has been that the smartest people look to the past for answers, not the future, because what worked for civilizations and societies hundreds or thousands of years ago can work today. Many young people agree with Dr. Peterson and Jonathan Haidt that we need less helicopter parenting and less coddling, which are ills of modernity, and to quote Jordan Peterson, young people don’t need more rights, they need responsibilities. This does not mean chores and work, but about taking the initiative–whether it’s going to school to expand one’s mind, going on excursion, leaning a skill, starting a family, or at the very least, not being a victim.