By Alex Seal
Love it or hate it, the popular saying “YOLO” (an acronym for You Only Live Once) has gained increased prominence in current discourse. This week alone has seen it used in hundreds of thousands of twitter posts, often used to justify a person’s actions because, as the motto states, ‘you only live once’. An article in The Independent (2013) provides some great (but nevertheless worrying) examples of how the term is often used to defend the actions of individuals. For example, drinking a carton of milk two days past its sell-by-date, leaving the house without an umbrella, or even joyriding in a parent’s car can all be accompanied with a “YOLO”.
New ‘buzzwords’ have constantly entered and faded out of youth language. Other acronyms such as OMG (Oh My God), LOL (Laugh Out Loud), and BFF (Best Friend Forever), whilst perhaps not as ‘popular’ as they have been, still hold some prominence and grounding in contemporary language. But the term YOLO perhaps holds a deeper meaning than these other acronyms – If we can start to look beyond how the media use the motto to simply reinforce the ‘recklessness’ of youth, YOLO actually acts a fitting metaphor for the contemporary lives of young people. This is because the motto reflects current sociological debates around choice and risk for young people. These ‘choices’ and ‘risks’ relate to all areas of social life that young people exist in: Educational decisions, the increased pressure for spatial mobility/relocation for employment, or managing personal relationships (both physically and online) are just a few examples of social life that encompass both choice and risk for young people.
I first discovered the deeper meaning of YOLO whilst watching the recent Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Like many people across the world, I could not turn my eyes away from the unfolding events at the men’s Snowboard Half-Pipe final. Shaun White, the two-time gold medal Olympian (and poster boy for the sport) was, by and large, unanimously expected to protect his gold medal for a third successive time. The script, however, was torn apart when a young Swiss rider named Iouri Podladtchikov (or ‘IPod’ to his fans and followers) landed a surreal trick that stole the coveted gold medal from the American, Shaun White. The trick that arguably won IPod his gold medal was the self-created “Cab double cork 1440” and for those of you who are snowboarding aerodynamic enthusiasts, you can understand and watch the trick here. But IPod himself did not refer to his trick as the “Cab double cork 1440”. Instead, he named it: “The YOLO Flip”. And this is where I understood YOLO possessing a deeper meaning within its core: In order for IPod to have a realistic chance at winning the gold medal, he had to negotiate choice and risk in order to achieve his goal – the ‘choice’ in selecting the right trick to win, with the ‘risk’ that, if he did not land the trick, he would surely lose out on the gold medal. Crucially though, he named his trick the “YOLO flip” which provided a glossy coat of youthful hedonism. IPod himself would have known the importance of landing that trick, but the ‘fun’ of attempting it, in a sport he held passion for, would surely have outweighed the risk in failure.
The YOLO motto may therefore not be as one-dimensional as some people (particularly the media) may think. IPod’s achievement could be seen as a reflection of the current conditions that young people are confronted with – a life stage that requires pursuing pleasure and responsibility simultaneously. Perhaps then the YOLO flip can be thought of as extremely metaphorical for a risky endeavour with a “just give it a go” attitude. After all, you only live once!
There is a central question that the YOLO motto poses then: Is YOLO simply a youthful symbol for evading or even excusing taking responsibility for individual actions? Or can YOLO be used as a philosophical doctrine for driving motivation and aspiration? This is tricky, not least when we consider that the motto can (and does) get used as an extended licence for reckless or criminal thrills – a sort of narcissistic hedonism. But I think it is also problematic to instantly condemn it, particularly when there may just be a social good within it. This is because the motto can highlight the inevitably of risk within the choices young people have to make (Beck, 1992), but forces them to embrace and negotiate those risks to achieve their desired outcomes (just like IPod’s gold medal).
Megan Walsh (2012), in her blog for the Huffington Post, calls the motto “dumb”. I agree with her in respect to the motto being used to justify or glorify criminal behaviour (although I don’t share her choice of the word ‘dumb’ to characterise it). But this example, like many others, is not surprising when considering Harry Blatterer’s (2007) idea of a ‘normative lag’ between youth and adulthood. For Blatterer (2007: 25), current policy makers take the linearity of youth to adulthood from previous generations, and measure contemporary young peoples successes and failures on that model. In this context, it could be argued that by labelling the motto ‘dumb’, the media continue to reinforce recklessness and immaturity with young people and youth. However, if we can unpack the YOLO motto from this normative lag, perhaps we should not write it off too soon, particularly when it may tell us something interesting about the way in which young people have to make risky choices in their lives. For IPod at least, his YOLO was not immature or reckless. It was logical, calculated, and negotiated – It also significantly contributed to winning his gold medal!
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