Are We More Apathetic Than a 90s Teen?

Zeitgsty
10 min readSep 11, 2023

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Where did all those COVID keyboard warriors dissipate to? As the pandemic churned on, the digital landscape became fertile ground for budding “social justice warriors” — a tribe I unabashedly count myself among. We broadcasted our fervor and frustrations, converting social media platforms into rallying squares for every conceivable injustice.

It makes sense this occurred when it did. After all, COVID19 was a social issue in its own right.

Indeed, while many continue to passionately spearhead campaigns for change, an unsettling number have slipped into the background. The feverish drive to be politically correct, that once pervaded our timelines, has notably ebbed.

Most of us no longer feel the zeal to outperform each other in the “woke” Olympics. Is this descent into a more lax discourse indicative of mere fatigue, or a more disturbing societal apathy? The pandemic itself was emblematic of larger social issues. Fresh coalitions like Data for Black Lives emerged, seeking racial transparency in pandemic data, while long standing causes like anti-domestic violence and abortion rights had to evolve, adapting to new exigencies.

But now, with earth-shattering events like extraterrestrial encounters barely causing a collective flutter, one has to wonder: are we, the torchbearers of modern justice, exhibiting greater apathy than the disenchanted teens who rode the grunge wave in the 90s? Recollecting instances of detachment, this piece intends to dissect our present indifference and ponder if, and when, our fervor might be reignited. Or, if we’re even capable of reignition.

Apathy–a poison to happiness?

It’s been whispered about in hushed corners and splashed dramatically across editorial headlines: the seemingly contagious spread of apathy. But why, in the throes of such progress and technological advancements, does this numbness toward passion, this detached ambivalence, matter?

Let’s dissect the concern. First, on an individual level.

Lack of engagement: Apathy is the silent thief of moments, stealing chances for growth, connection, and those raw, visceral experiences that make life flavorful.

Overtime inactivity and mental health: It’s not just a sense of inertia. It’s a tangible cloud of melancholy. Continuous sedentary behavior, whether staring at the blue screen or sinking into the couch, chips away at our social bonds and our physical health. And science is shouting — depression and sedentary lifestyles are intimately connected. There’s empirical evidence to back it to boot.

Strain on relationships: Detachment, that silent sentinel of apathy, reads as cold indifference to loved ones, eroding the bridges of trust we so painstakingly build.

Dwindling productivity: In the professional realm, apathy is the slacker in the room, pulling down efficiency and churning out mediocrity.

Neurobiological ties to depression: There’s a deep-rooted dance between apathy and depression on a cellular, brain-wired level. One fuels the other in a cycle that’s devilishly hard to break.

Inhibition of personal growth: In the game of life, apathy sidelines us. We miss the goals, the thrills — perhaps, the very essence of existence.

A stunted curiosity: The dormant mind doesn’t question. It fails to explore. And without that spark of wonder, innovation fades into oblivion.

Now, let’s examine the bigger picture. How does an apathetic population look?

Engagement crisis: Societal apathy paints a picture of a world disengaged, driven by the chilling statistic from Gallup: employee engagement nosediving from the highs of 2020 to a mere 32% in 2022. The counter? A worrying 18% actively disengaging.

Governance on autopilot: When the governed detach, governance runs unchecked. The voice of the many, silenced by apathy, allows for unchecked decisions at the helm.

Political and economic trepidation: The numbers are telling: 80% bracing for financial headwinds, 90% foreseeing political rifts, 85% anticipating international discord. It’s a bleak outlook painted by the very people who feel too detached to change it. Irony, right? 🤷‍♀️

A stall in progress: The inertia of apathy slows the wheels of change, evident in the seismic overturn of the likes of Roe v. Wade.

Environmental disregard: While the U.S. is often labeled as a significant contributor to climate issues, the lack of environmental concern is deeply troubling. The U.S. ranks as the second-highest emitter of greenhouse gasses. However, based on a recent survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, a smaller proportion of Americans express concern about climate change compared to other major emitters globally. Additionally, the U.S. has the highest number of individuals who completely reject the idea that human activities contribute to climate change. Yikes.

Mortgaging the future: A society steeped in apathy neglects the long-game, imperiling future generations with its inaction. And we’re seeing the seeds of this take root with our growing housing crisis.

In this portrait of our era, apathy is the lurking shadow, a silent pandemic, muddying the vibrant tapestry of individual lives and societal progress. Fortunately, we’re not at the point of no return on the doom-and-gloom meter just yet. But these symptoms are crucial to keep tracking as a useful metric.

What are the consequences of apathy?

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In the scorching rhetoric of modern society’s alleged indifference, one might claim we’re witnessing an apathy epidemic. Yet, the figures paint a chilling tableau: population apathy, where once-fertile grounds of enthusiasm and interest now lie barren, threatens our societal progression.

Take for instance the current reality: less than one-third of U.S workers feel genuinely tied to their professions. It’s a disconcerting indicator of widespread detachment. So, how does this disconnect manifest? Through which lenses can we discern its depth and breadth?

The ethos of democracy thrives on the individual’s voice and choice. When examined, the act of voting becomes emblematic of a society’s level of engagement. The tepid participation of youth, women, and Black Americans, even amidst the relatively high turnout of the 2020 elections, sends a foreboding message. Side by side with global figures, as per Pew Research, our numbers appear rather feeble.

The heartbeat of a society is often best felt in its shared spaces — from the community feasts to spirited discussions in town hall meetings. The increasingly empty chairs and dwindling voices in these communal rendezvous depict an alarming detachment from the collective.

Then, there’s the undeniable disconnect from the broader world — a growing number seem blissfully ignorant of news and ongoing global events. Significantly, barely 1 in 3 people aged 18–24 are interested in news today.

This sentiment of disengagement is also reverberated in our educational institutions, where reverence for the noble profession of teaching is at its lowest ebb in decades–50 years to be exact .

The streets, which once echoed with the passionate cries of protesters, now seem eerily silent. This stillness begs the question: Are we truly unbothered, or have we merely withdrawn? In the digital realm, trends tracker Treendly shows an overall diminishing interest in searches for “volunteerism” over the past 5 years (-2.48% to be exact), hinting at a deeper societal malaise.

The rampant conspiracy theories surrounding COVID vaccines might be less about skepticism and perhaps more indicative of a rampant apathy towards healthcare and public health.

Similarly, the fleeting and inconsistent interest in “climate change” searches points to a society that is often reactive, lacking consistent proactive engagement with pressing environmental issues.

The political sphere is far from spared too. With a staggering three-quarters of Americans in 2019 expressing dwindling trust in their government, the chasm between the populace and the establishment appears to be broadening. Then there’s the bane of passive consumerism. The phenomenon of fast fashion encapsulates this, where increasing wardrobe sizes contrast with decreasing garment longevity. And the toll this takes on the environment? More significant CO2 emissions than the combined output of the aviation and shipping industries.

Reflecting on Elizabeth Wurtzel’s musings about the ’90s, a time she described as a decade “that lasted a long time,” one is compelled to ponder. In this age, where apathy seems endemic, will our era be remembered for its profound imprints or merely as ephemeral echoes of widespread indifference? Let’s zoom out a bit further–back to 2020.

What’s COVID got to do with it?

In a world so enamored by the past, we still must wonder whether we’ve truly moved past the shadow of the COVID era. Or, does its imprint linger, like a foggy mirror refusing to be wiped clean? The pandemic’s haunting echo resonates in every corner of our society, an insidious reminder of the vulnerabilities we often took for granted.

Healthcare is the most obvious battlefield. Our once-stalwart systems crumbled under the weight of the virus, laying bare their inefficiencies and frailties. Now, propelled by the glaring spotlight of inadequacy, there’s a tidal shift towards reforms.

From telemedicine’s rise to an emphasis on vaccine distribution, COVID has rewritten the playbook for healthcare. The promise of change is in the air — by a WHO survey’s account, a whopping ¾ of countries are pumping in funds for recovery and future safeguarding. And as we edge into 2023, a silver lining emerges. The disruptions in health services have begun to soften. Yet, the siren song of complacency cannot be heeded. The emphasis on sustained investments remains non-negotiable.

Now, let’s talk dollars and cents. Economically, the pandemic’s ripples are seismic. Sure, governments threw lifelines in the form of stimulus measures. But the chasm between damage and recovery is gaping. As experts peg the U.S.’s economic hemorrhage at a staggering $14 trillion by the end of 2023.

But perhaps the pandemic’s most ubiquitous signature lies in the way we work and learn. The comfort of our homes became the new classrooms and offices. A recalibration that, on one hand, could revolutionize education through technology’s assimilation. Yet, the isolation, the closed doors, and screen-dominated interactions might be stoking the fires of societal apathy.

The stats, as per the Integrated Benefits Institute, underscore the peril. Remote and hybrid work scenarios are linked to heightened anxiety and depressive symptoms, painting a stark contrast to traditional in-person work.

Although studies conflict about whether or not this is beneficial to our happiness, some people are at least feeling the effect. Fully remote (40%) and hybrid work (38%) are associated with an increased likelihood of anxiety and depression symptoms compared to in-person work (35%), according to an analysis by the Integrated Benefits Institute (IBI).

And speaking of the mind, the pandemic has birthed an unprecedented mental health crisis. The numbers are grim — a staggering 90% of U.S. adults, according to a KFF/CNN survey, see the nation grappling with a mental health maelstrom. The aftermath? An overburdened mental health care system. An astounding 6 in 10 psychologists are turning away the afflicted, their capacity stretched thin.

Yet, if COVID was a storm, it also uprooted deep-seated disparities, thrusting societal inequalities into the unforgiving light of day. As the collective conscience grapples with the enormity of systemic prejudices, an intriguing phenomenon gains traction — injustice trauma. This psychological distress, stemming from the quagmire of societal inequities. It’s bigger than a buzzword–it’s a bonafide, palpable affliction.

In the swirling eddies of change, reflection, and recovery, one truth emerges. The COVID era, while fleeting in the vast expanse of history, has indelibly marked us, for better or worse. And as we juxtapose the seeming apathy of today with the fervor of a ’90s teen, we must acknowledge the specter of the pandemic. As, in truth, it’s forever intertwined with our zeitgeist.

How can we combat apathy?

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In the scorching discourse of societal apathy, we often get tangled in the overarching narrative of “population apathy,” a term so mammoth that it feels almost too large to grasp. And yet perhaps our salvation lies not in combating this beast head-on. But rather, in addressing the quieter, more insidious apathy that lies dormant within each individual.

The beauty of the individual is that one can evolve, adapt, and rekindle lost fervor with the right impetus. While resources are abundant — each offering its own cocktail for revival–let’s distill the wisdom from the best of them.

Unearth the root: The genesis of your apathy might be buried in stress, a quiet bout of depression, or simply an overwhelming ennui. By identifying its source, we unearth the map to its dissolution.

Champion small wins: Set miniature milestones. Savor their completion. Let every small victory become the fuel to drive larger conquests.

The power of routine: A well-orchestrated day brings with it a sense of purpose, a quiet anchor in turbulent times.

Move to evoke: Unshackle the chains of inertia. Movement — whether a deliberate dance or a brisk evening walk — summons endorphins, nature’s own mood lifters.

Rediscover human connections: Isolation casts a long, cold shadow of apathy. Pull back the curtains, connect, converse, and let the warmth of companionship dispel the gloom.

The healing touch of professionals: If the weight of apathy begins to suffocate, seeking professional help isn’t an admission of weakness but an assertion of self-worth.

Seek clarity in mindfulness: Ground yourself in the present. Meditation and mindfulness can untangle the intricate webs of emotion and offer lucidity.

Ignite passions: Traverse the landscape of your heart. Find what sets it aflame and pursue it without abandon.

Guard against the noise: Identify and mute the din of distractions. Be it the siren song of screens or the slippery slope of procrastination, filter them out.

Self-compassion’s embrace: Don the cloak of kindness. When you stumble into apathy’s pits, be gentle with yourself. Understand. Heal. 💗

As we stand on the precipice of societal detachment, the road to reconnection starts from within, with every conscious choice. Just like the ennui-riddled teen of the ’90s, tangled in their angst, it’s time for society to wake up, snap out of the lethargy, and find its fervor again.

For in the end, our refusal to be apathetic is not just a personal statement — it’s an act of quiet rebellion, a beacon for the world to see. And if there’s anything more potent than collective apathy, it’s the shared resolve to rise above it.

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Zeitgsty

Zeitgeisty = your compass to the culture cosmos. 🔭 Ideal for the marketer's muse, the journalist’s journal, or if you just love being culturally in the know.