If you're a young person feeling lonely these days, you're in good company. Youth everywhere are experiencing record rates of depression and anxiety, surrounded by a cultural climate of both isolation and overexposure. The moniker "snowflake generation" seems an apt phrase, then, to describe our mass neurosis: brittle Instagram veneers, obsessive combing over the newsfeeds of friends who always seem wealthier, prettier or happier than we are.
It's tempting to dismiss millennials' distorted worldviews as naive navel-gazing or just "selfishness." But why do grown-up social critics tend to blame an entire generational crisis on kids' self-obsession (especially when millennials are hardly "kids" any more)? Maybe adults of all ages should question their impulse to write off as the product of personality flaws what's clearly a widespread social epidemic.
The issue isn't personal narcissism and selfie culture but, rather, a culture of mass consumption and material acquisition. It's obvious how modern Western popular culture promotes these values, fueling a consumer culture built on speed, excess and distraction; whole industries today are built around reproducing socially-approved images of perfection, from cosmetic surgery to college test prep. Our mediated lives are populated with images of what we aren't, what we aspire to be, and what is impossible to achieve; no wonder young minds are awash in emptiness and insatiable hunger for self-fulfillment.
Our mediated lives are populated with images of what we aren't, what we aspire to be, and what is impossible to achieve.
Researchers at the University of Bath and York St. Johns University have identified extreme levels of "perfectionism" among young people in the U.S., Canada and Britain, associated with intense levels of depression and anxiety. They link these symptoms directly with the rise of neoliberal economic policies in recent years.
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For students growing up since 1989, society's emphasis on the market economy and "meritocracy" correlate with a spike in negative self-image and social alienation. It seems to be a mass cultural phenomenon that hits youth particularly hard — perhaps something we're all experiencing on some level in the age of Trumpism, as we grapple with collective politically-induced social distress.
But the institutional roots of the crisis run deeper. Surveying students on a scale of perfectionist traits, researchers linked the rise of a free-market social system with internalized fixation on materialism. Across gender lines, this is reflected in heightened levels of suicidal thoughts, eating disorders and depression. The social context that drives mass social distress, they argue, is a culture fixated on material wealth that permeates many social institutions. "Social media, school and university testing and job performance assessments mean young people can be sifted, sorted and ranked by peers, teachers and employers," the study concluded. "If young people rank poorly, the logic of our market-based society dictates...that their inferiority reflects some personal weakness or flaw."
The social context that drives mass social distress, they argue, is a culture fixated on material wealth that permeates many social institutions.
Though the study was limited to college students, federal data shows that, across the U.S., about a third of teens and a quarter of younger adults experience some form of anxiety disorder. About three million teenagers have recently suffered a major episode of depression. Teen suicide rates have swelled since 2007, particularly among girls. The prevalence of these problems has intensified in recent years as social pressures and stress levels have soared.
Free-market culture can, of course, promote certain positive traits, such as independent thinking or self-confidence. But the social hierarchies reinforced by market liberalism also profoundly erode society's communal values, which results in a scaling back of public welfare programs, rising interpersonal conflict and, on a personal level, social stressors and economic precarity for young workers, students and caregivers. The system forces a "sink or swim" mentality in which the stakes of every move, from landing your first job to starting a relationship, become devastatingly high for youth, and the consequences of failure unfathomable.
Capitalism's underlying system of social norms over-inflates the value of wealth and reduces personal worth to external achievements and credentials. Behind the intense competition for a few coveted spots at top colleges, or the daily manias that we masochistically scroll through on our social media feeds, lie socioeconomic, racial and gender divides that elevate icons of material consumption as markers of privilege, measured through an irrational social structure. So it's sadly reasonable for a young person's sense of self-worth to become distilled into the never-ending pursuit of the perfect look, resume or dating profile.
Socioeconomic, racial and gender divides elevate icons of material consumption as markers of privilege, measured through an irrational social structure.
Although many see millennial anxiety as a "First World Problem," the hierarchies that undermine youths' self-esteem actually play out around the globe, through neoliberal economic policies that divide wealthy and "developing" societies. Parallel social crises are unfolding in poor countries: Worldwide, about 10 to 20 percent of young people suffer from mental health disorders. Suicide is now a leading cause of death among adolescents. The trends are intensified in societies facing extreme deprivation and joblessness, or communities rife with violent conflict socioeconomic strife, and the trauma associated with mass displacement and marginalization.
According to researcher Thomas Curran, neoliberalism's negative social impacts could be even worse for the underprivileged; it's likely that "those in lower socioeconomic status are more vulnerable to these changes in perfectionism due to higher precarity and less support." In other words, when you're young and poor, the closer you live to the edge, the more devastating the prospect of failure seems — and the more reason to feel consumed by despair and hopelessness.
Even our social responses to institutionalized inequality are inflected with materialism. The mainstream feminist movement, originally focused on equalizing opportunity across gender, now publicly celebrates the "success" of women who've "made it" as managers of multinational corporations. Why is fighting gender inequality linked to competing favorably with male executives earning 500 times more than their poorest workers (who, by the way, are likely young women)?
If you find yourself tempted to lament selfie culture's ruinous effects on millennial minds, consider the kind of society that the new millennium has presented to all generations: lives of unfettered excess, and bottomless deprivation. When children are driven to retreat into themselves to make sense of it all, when youth spiral into despair in the race for social approval, maybe it's not the kids being unreasonable; but society being irrational.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast and Asia Pacific Forum on WBAI FM.