Having no idea what to make of this, I have not rushed to post about it. Here’s the story, reported by Jesse Singal from a study conducted by Jean Twenge.
Singal summarizes the conclusion:
Ever since the 1930s, young people in America have reported feeling increasingly anxious and depressed. And no one knows exactly why.
For what it’s worth, the trend line certainly points upward. And yet, the study seems to take no account of certain important historical events. Young people in the 1930s were living through the Great Depression. The 1940s began with a world war. The 1950s were relatively calm while the late 1960s were a time of turmoil. The 1970s saw the rise of second-wave feminism.
Since the study does not seem to factor in historical circumstance, one hesitates to read too much into it.
This has not prevented Twenge from drawing some conclusions. I admit that I find the conclusions intriguing and at times persuasive.
She argues that society has become increasingly atomized, and thus that people have been forced to live more as individuals than as members of a group or a family. The result has been more anxiety and depression.
People suffer from the disconnect imposed by “modern life.” We take it with a grain of doubt, but we should examine Singal’s summary:
She [Twenge] thinks the primary problem is that “modern life doesn’t give us as many opportunities to spend time with people and connect with them, at least in person, compared to, say, 80 years ago or 100 years ago. Families are smaller, the divorce rate is higher, people get married much later in life.” Smaller families and later marriage, of course, in part reflect societal advancement most of us would view as positive — people, particularly women, have a lot more autonomy over relationships and reproduction. Twenge wanted to be clear that she is for all these different types of societal progress, and that the period when people reported fewer depression and anxiety symptoms was also one where there was widespread racial and gender-based discrimination. She just also thinks we should be “clear-eyed” about the fact that the the “potential tradeoff for our equality and freedom is more anxiety and depression because we’re more isolated.”
In other words, it may simply be the case that many people who lived in less equal, more “traditional” times were forced into close companionship with a lot of other people, and that this shielded them from certain psychological problems, whatever else was going on in their lives
As it happens, the rising divorce rate, to take one example, dates to the early 1970s. Modern life was not quite as modern during the 1930s and social anomie was surely less prevalent during World War II and the 1950s. It’s one thing to show how modern technology has changed the family farm. But, the divorce rate and the trend toward later marriage do not seem to correlate chronologically.
We tend to think, and Twenge surely thinks that later marriage and more divorce are good things. It is not self-evident, to me at least, that people who do not believe they can count on anyone beyond themselves have really made progress. If you believe that they have, then you are really saying that deconstructing the social order and undermining social harmony is, on the one hand, making us sick, but on the other hand is a good thing.
Twenge’s approach seems pessimistic. She suggests that we are the victims of progress and that there is nothing we can do about it. And yet, to the extent that we have bought into liberation movements and the counterculture, we bear some responsibility for our mental health.
Rampant individualism, the constant attacks on national pride, insistence that the nation is a criminal conspiracy have certainly exacted a price. While Prozac and other psychiatric medications have reduced the reported levels of depression and anxiety, it is also true that we are living in something of a pharmacopeia, where we are told that a pill can cure all of our ills.
Twenge also believes that an erosion in values has damaged us:
For whatever reason, the shift away from this sort of life has also brought with it a shift in values, and Twenge thinks that this, too, can account for the increase in anxiety and depression. “There’s clear evidence that the focus on money, fame, and image has gone up,” she said, referring to various surveys that have been conducted over the decades in which young people are asked about their goals and values, “and there’s also clear evidence that people who focus on money, fame, and image are more likely to be depressed and anxious.”
Let’s call it by its name: the culture places an inordinate value on celebrity and even suggests that we should aspire to it. In some cases celebrity has become a qualification for political office. Clearly, such lives do not easily fit into communities. They represent an escape from community, and a defiant assertion of individuality.
So maybe the key message here is that while there’s no way to go back to family farms and young marriage and parenthood — and, from an equality standpoint,we wouldn’t want to anyway — modern life needs to do a better job of connecting people to one another, and encouraging them to adopt the sorts of goals and outlooks that will make them happy.
It is true that the nation needed to overcome racism, but the movement toward integration, toward a more inclusive social fabric was not the same as the Vietnam counterculture and women’s liberation.
Racial integration was an effort, if not to help all citizens to get along with each other, at the least, to put an end to institutional barriers to it. Women’s liberation promoted radical individualism. It told women that they cannot count on men. It has told men not to rely on women. Marriage today no longer seems to be a cooperative enterprise but two people who occasionally went bump in the night.
The studies suggest that these new marriages have not been quite as successful as their proponents suggest. It is easier to construct a life together than to merge two fully constituted lives.
True enough, increased lifespan and other factors have obviated the necessity to do so, but there is nothing about industrialization that prevents people from marrying young.