Are We The New Lost Generation?
Times are strange.
Whispers of the onset of a great recession can be overheard from faded retro earth-tone velvet couches and vintage wooden tables, dimly candle-lit during the last opening hours of hipster bars strewn across cities’ gentrified districts; the little drawing room caves de vin acting as micro hubs for the highly educated and unemployed, looking to escape the very obvious and collective sentiment that the world is in shreds.
This was a couple of years ago – most young graduates were still full of hope for their ambitious futures, buying into catchy feel-good ideologies that profess you only live once, that the world is at your disposal, brimming with potential and possibility; that success is the next stop after doing what you love and that all of it, that abundance and happiness were not the privilege of the few, but rights of birth.
Now, such whispers have escalated into loud discussions at almost any youth gathering. Some say that we are already living World War III, only it’s an ideological war that acts silently in the open, insidiously snaking its way into friendly discussions within groups and unsuspecting individuals, creating very clear and unbridgeable divides that threaten both free speech and the future of cooperation. Some say World War III is still underway, taking its time to reach its climax through a string of world terrors and global catastrophes that build in intensity like waves preceding a tsunami, each time bringing fresh impressions of hate, silent racism and fear of the other. Not a war in the traditional sense of country against country, but of people against people.
Whatever we choose to name it, feelings that the world is in shambles are universal. We all know it. The anarchy in the air is felt even by the wealthy and privileged, whose money may set them above the common drudgeries of life, but whose lives are no less impacted by the uncertainty of widespread change and generational loss of security and prospects.
Everything is being uprooted. Roles and expectations in different levels of society are shifting – portfolios featuring rotations of various mediocre paying jobs that were once the average working situation of the poor, have now invaded the middle class space as a new norm. Old jobs are disappearing as new, half formed ones take their place. News channels playing an endless theatre of shock horrors across the globe give the appearance that the world is beyond repair and regressing. Unemployment rates and living expenses are sky rocketing, making buying a house and settling down at 30 like your parents an impossible feat.
We are hyperconnected and have the freedom to move across borders, yet we are completely disconnected, alienated and isolated all at the same time. The blessing of information at our fingertips soured into a culture of mass dis-information where corporate advertisements and content marketing take the place of factual news and genuine human interaction. Omitted half-truths have become part of the modern vernacular, masquerading out in the open as reality. The threat of global warming, representing everything that is bad about humanity’s way of life, is just around the corner. The corporate greed, conflicting ethics, political corruption and abuses of power have bred widespread disillusionment with the establishment.
We are disoriented, wandering, directionless. Unemployed and unsatisfied, yet ready for battle, bouncing between bouts of apathy and depression, and manic enthusiasm and energy for new projects that we whole heartedly believe will lead us to exponential personal growth and success. The remnants of a culture pegged to the ideals of the American Dream stay with us, dictating to us that what matters most is the accumulation of fame and wealth, the pillars of success erected during an era reigned by publicity, entertainment and image fabrication.
And in all of this, as society’s structures transmute beyond recognition, identities and realities are becoming increasingly digitized, bringing with them talks of livable virtual realities, artificial intelligence and the next step in human evolution. We’re heading straight for the future, but in the post-industrial age, we’re stuck between the then and now, unsure whether to embrace or reject the true face of modernity, plagued by a nostalgia for a time we never truly experienced.
When nothing makes sense anymore, archetypal life paths are uprooted, fixed social and individual values that formed the social contract that enabled society to function are branching off into relativity. If there are no absolutes then everything can be anything, and we wonder why we are experiencing a global crisis of meaning. We are plagued with the inability to define things - even the simplest social block, the job description, is very often a vague mélange comprising what were once the duties of different departments.
In today’s society, you have to be ready to become anything, living in a constant state of adaptability – the fight or flight – leaving no room for commitments to settle or navigate a permanent life path. What’s the point of working in a company your whole life if no company can guarantee your pension? What’s the point in getting a degree if all you’re asked to do after a Masters under your belt is to work for free in unpaid internship rotations that can last years? What’s the point in building a foundation in a country, when events we cannot fathom now may trigger an intense need to emigrate? The reality is that few things are really stable anymore.
The harshness of life and humdrum necessities of survival are inevitabilities every living generation and individual human must endure and overcome, yet ideologies of progress, technological advancement and cushy lifestyles lulled the world into thinking that these were issues humans could master, derailing the expectations of a whole generation far from reality, and averting our eyes as our futures become increasingly uncertain with wave upon wave of economic depression.
In a time of soaring debt and sky-high costs of living, of secure jobs and money there are less and less. Our only choice is to live pay cheque by pay cheque, leaving us few avenues to break free from the monotonous thump of survival in order to pursue new ones where we may hope to find a sense of purpose. We were promised self-actualization, but we are unable to break free from a routine that is both necessary and crushing. Is it a wonder then, that we turn to entertainment and escapism, to incessant play and materialistic consumption in nihilistic pursuit of pleasure?
And yet, for a steadily growing subculture, the air is electric with the excitement of possibility. Change brings winds of great discovery and exploration. We may be lost, but we are bold, determined and free to live as life should be lived. To forge new paths and make mistakes. To wallow in both cynicism and wonder at how everything in the world is interconnected as we pillage reality for more knowledge, art, and moments of beauty, feeding our minds incessantly in the hopes of finding those momentary flashes of meaning.
During the past decade, the ceaseless plundering of our souls and identities by a mainstream society fundamentally structured to perpetuate mindless consumption slowly spurred the growth of countless mini counter-culture subcultures; rebellious sparks of life coming up for air from underneath the numbing effects of complacency and standardized life paths. As explorers in pursuit of life’s purpose we have re-opened the world, seeking solace in creative expression – any means with which we can bring back the sense that there is something more to existence. Though never fully articulated or consciously enacted, a broken world ushered in a cultural and artistic renaissance; a re-birth and newfound sensitivity to the sadness and beauty of the human condition. We have re-discovered art, philosophy, poetry and literature, connecting with the thoughts and work of masters that had so much to say about the world before we were squeezed dry of the ability to hear them.
Somehow, the cries and roars that have been ripping through countries too far to touch us have finally woken us up. We feel suddenly conscious in a sea of automatons mechanically going through life as if everything is okay, refusing to acknowledge the state of the world and to question how we got there. We see things with fresh eyes and refuse to be bogged down by the futility of our circumstances. In a way, we see ourselves like Ernest Hemingway saw his own lost generation, battered, reckless, aimless, decadent - but not beaten.
A century ago, in quiet corners of Paris, a small circle of writers and artists would express their disillusionment in works of art, all united under one term that seemed to amply mirror widespread feelings in society. Our unique experience has in fact been experienced before; as we are told by Gen X, so were they by their predecessors: “You are all la génération perdue.“
The original Lost Generation of the 1920’s came of age during WWI and the Roaring Twenties, living through mass urbanization and industrialization; a time of emigration to the big city, of incredible technologies that revolutionized the average lifestyle, and of private financial institutions and credit loans that allowed the less wealthy to indulge in the same material freedoms previously only enjoyed by the elite. The foundations of a consumer culture were ushered in.
While progress beat its drum, the aftermath of a terrible, nonsensical war bred disgust and disbelief in civilization and the systems that they built. Coupled with the loss of God, the ultimate absolute, and the rejection of traditional values, morals and norms that once guided society, the turn of the century transformed into a breeding ground for hedonic abandonment.
They lived in a sort of limbo, caught between tradition and the future, uncertain of their place and of their prospects. With nothing to provide meaning, people turned to temporary gratifications, filling their sense of purposelessness with consumption, indulging in pleasure and material gain. Although the future was unclear, one hope remained; that one fine day their dreams could come true - but a different kind of dream, one where glittering riches and wealthy lifestyles took the place of self-sufficiency.
And so, nights bled into days in a haze of wild parties, scattered far and wide through the lit up streets of the most fashionable cities. People lived only in the present, dressing in the trendiest get ups, eating at the most popular cafes and dancing in the chicest nightclubs in an attempt to fill the void that was left when everything they knew was turned on its head.
The artists of the lost generation could see it all – the frivolity, the alienation, the insurmountable need for escapism. They expressed the tenets of their new world in creative works, relating their addictions, the changing nature of relationships; divorce, sex, alcohol, and the emergence of a multitude of identities that transcended gender and social categories. Although aware, they were as much a part of it as everyone else.
Like us, they were aimless and cynical - but very much alive, held together by an irrational, yet necessary hope of a better future. Armed with a newfound independence of mind and spirit, we, like them, are looking for ways to capture the newness of the times we live in, to make sense of them and with any luck, shape them.
Even a century apart, a generation caught in a changing world can be tied by similarities and relate to each other. Just like theirs, we as a lost generation are prone to an escapism rooted in hedonism, addicted to moments of abandonment and carelessness that for a few hours give us the false impression that we are free. For both of us, it’s the dark moments that fuel us, coming alive in our contradictions.
We’re living a period of intense change. We’re still waiting for the dust to settle on our new world; when the bedrock of a society crumbles, something needs to take its place – but this takes time, we are only just entering the new millennia, caught in the eye of the storm while we look left and right for new ground on which to stand on. And in the meantime, this momentary space is allowing us to play with sporadic ideologies that offer new forms of perceiving and engaging with the world, providing any form of guidance for how to co-exist and thrive.
As always with periods of intense change, there is so much beauty and creation. Creative expression has flourished as our means to gather our collective anxieties and need for recognition into a language able to provide a sense of meaning to our existence. Although our whole is fragmented and we are still piecing together our new identities, we are uniting in so many ways, collaborating through art, pooling our loneliness and confusion into an ensemble of works to which the world’s entire youth is participating.
We are lost, perhaps, but what better way to find ourselves?