Back on October 22, 1844, tens of thousands of Americans who followed a preacher named William Miller eagerly awaited the Second Coming of Christ. By “await,” I don’t mean that they had a general hope or belief, as in, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
I mean they expected Jesus to return on that day. In anticipation, many had settled their debts and given away what remained of their property. Some had slaughtered their animals to feed others and freed their slaves.
To put it in contemporary language, they were all in. But the day came, and the day went. Eventually, it became known as “The Great Disappointment,” leaving people disillusioned and financially unprepared for a future they were certain wouldn’t exist.
Today, the Millerites are regarded as, at best, pitiable, and at worst, fools. They are often held up as an example of the dangers of religious thinking run amok.
A recent story in MarketWatch shows that the Millerites aren’t the only ones who let apocalyptic thinking get in the way of prudence.
According to the National Institute on Retirement Security, two-thirds of those born between 1981 and 1996, a.k.a., “Millennials,” have saved nothing for retirement.
There are many reasons this shouldn’t surprise us. In addition to the sense of immortality associated with being young, this generation came of age during the Great Recession. Between student loans and lower-than-expected earnings, they often have trouble making ends meet, much less planning for retirement.
But there’s another, somewhat surprising reason some have offered for their lack of savings: climate change.
One 27-year-old told MarketWatch that, while she wanted to “hope for the best and plan for a future that is stable and secure,” she didn’t see how “things could not be chaotic in 50 years.” She even used the word “apocalyptic.”
When we first came across that story, I wondered if she was an outlier. She wasn’t. Another person interviewed for the article said he wasn’t saving for retirement for the same reasons he wasn’t planning to marry or have children: “The more you read the more you feel like, unless something very radically changes soon, it’s going to be downright cruel to have children in the future.”
They’re not alone in this bleak view of the future. A 2018 report from the American Psychological Association found that 72 percent of Millennials reported that their “emotional well-being is affected by the inevitability of climate change.”
For some, this “inevitability” overshadows their hopes and dreams for the future, including any desire to save for the future. One executive of an online investment firm told MarketWatch that “[f]rom a perception point of view, I hear a lot of cynicism about the ability to build retirement savings or whether they will be able to retire at all.”
The resemblance to those people who, back in 1844, sold their possessions awaiting the apocalypse is not coincidental. As I’ve said before on BreakPoint, modern discourse is often a parody of Christian ideas and concepts. Even after people cease to believe in Christianity, their way of thinking and talking about the world reflects what philosopher John Gray called “secular reincarnation of Christian beliefs.”
An obvious example is the use of the word “apocalyptic.” But so is the idea that history comes with an “expiration date,” which no amount of human planning can forestall.
As my colleague Shane Morris noted on Facebook, “The more you study climate change as a political and cultural phenomenon, the more you realize how much it’s replaced fundamentalist, rapture-centered religion.”
Of course, today’s religious fervor differs from the 19th century Millerites in one very important way. The Millerites’ disappointment came from a dashed hope. But hope is one thing that holders of this 21st century climate-apocalypticism sorely lack.