In 2011, songs with lyrics like “I’ve got a hangover, wooo, I’ve been drinking too much for sure” and titles as “Party Rock Anthem” were pounding in the clubs all over the world.
After a sharp recession and economic breakdown between 2007 and 2009, the teens and twens of this generation were searching for a light-hearted change. With a mix of nihilism in the wake of financial destruction and hopeful optimism for a better future, it seemed like a little hedonism would cure at least part of the pain.
Instagram had just got steam up and people loved to share their carefree moments eating burgers, spending time by the beach or just looking fabulous in a new pair of jeans.
In this zeitgeist, rappers Drake and Rick Ross dropped a mixtape called YOLO. The abbreviation stood for “You only live once” and was a modern take on the classic “Carpe Diem” — seize the day.
Something about the goofy term captured the mood of many people at that time. Within few months, YOLO was everywhere, as the results on Google prove:
The new mantra was printed on mugs, parodied in late shows and added as a hashtag to countless snaps on social media. Critics were quick to point out the superficial nature of the motto. However, YOLO still has an impact on youth culture — for the better and for the worse.
As a millennial and witness of that time period, I’ve come to realize that several key aspects of life for a brief moment in history were influenced by YOLO in both positive and negative ways.
1. Life philosophy
Positive: Although YOLO sounds silly, it motivated people to stop worrying about the future and live in the here and now. In essence, that is not a bad idea. Appreciating what you have in the present, contributes to your overall happiness. From this point, it is easy to develop mindfulness and gratitude for the little moments you experience.
Some influencers and writers added elements of positive psychology or spiritual wisdom to the conversation. Prioritizing your happiness and living your life to the fullest are key messages, which continue to have an effect self-help books and communities.
Negative: For many, the YOLO mentality didn’t serve as a spiritual inspiration for gratitude of the present. It turned into a self-centered and hedonistic escape from the future and adulthood. “We could be dead tomorrow”, many said. This sentence is theoretically true — but most of us will live until we approach our 80s.
In order to carve out a good life, it is necessary to plan the right steps for your professional life, personal growth and romantic relationships. If you really lived like every day was your last, you will never embark on the challenging tasks which will lead you forward in your life.
Positive: The cultural momentum of YOLO changed what young people value — material things became less important; experiences were the new currency of status. Many people started travelling across the globe. They tested new lifestyles as digital nomads and travelers for years. Wanderlust became a popular theme of that time. This broadened the horizon of many people. They could experience cultures, languages and environments like no other generation before.
At the same time, music festivals had a sort of revival. While they were never out of fashion, mega festivals like Coachella and Tomorrowland reached a new quality and target the experience-oriented demographic.
Negative: When YOLO came, his cousin FOMO followed. Instagram proved to be the perfect platform to fuel this fear of missing out. People started to outcompete each other — it mattered to present fancier vacation destinations, prettier weddings and perfect relationships.
Travel turned into a box-ticking. I remember an encounter at a hostel in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. Two Australian girls were travelling Europe and they were counting the numbers of countries they had visited — often just for 1–2 days. In 2017, a research showed that “instagrammability” is the most important factor for millennials when choosing a holiday destination. The ease and appreciation of experiences got lost along the way.
3. Love and relationships
Positive: Short-term thinking as in the YOLO mindset, invites short-term romance. This created a new wave of sexual liberation. In consequence, issues like slut shaming were discussed and criticized with a new openness.
With casual dating becoming more acceptable, technology naturally found a way to cater to the new trend. Tinder was founded in 2012 and paved the way for an era of new solutions against loneliness.
Negative: Hook-up culture hurts people. While a short summer fling can be fun and exciting, a series of one-night stands, ghosting and gaslighting experiences is not. The short-term dating mentality left many people with trust issues and pessimism towards love and connections.
Additionally, a carefree and self-centered lifestyle created fertility issues. With a party lifestyle in your 20s, and a priority of experience over financial stability, especially women found themselves often in their early 30s without the possibility of founding a family. No partner, no stable income. In part, the nature of modern economy creates this issue, but a lack of planning in your 20s doesn’t help. Many people who didn’t want children in their 20s, changed their mind in their 30s — but then couldn’t make it happen. This can be a source of sorrow.
Will there be a new YOLO?
Looking back at the 2010s, the light-hearted mentality of those days seemed like a direct reaction to the recession and the crisis of trust in the public and financial institutions. After tough years, people found new energy. It was manifested in the Occupy movement — and in the sillier concept of YOLO.
While people loved to hate it, YOLO was a symptom of the recalibration in society. Young people shifted towards experiences, their identities merged with their digital personalities, and yes — sometimes they behaved foolishly. However, the impact of that era can still be felt.
Such recalibrations are normal after impactful events like deep recessions. The question is — will we recalibrate after the end of coronavirus pandemic and which direction will we chose? Nowadays, young people seem to be more responsible and pragmatic — they prioritize health and therefore avoid alcohol and wild parties more than the generations before. They have a sense for social responsibility and mobilize millions of people across the globe to demonstrate at Fridays for Future.
Whatever new hype or movement emerges as a reaction to the crisis, it probably will have a lasting effect. But with a new conscious generation, this time it might be something smarter than YOLO.