Saturday, March 19, 2016

Why Are Young People More Anxious and Depressed?

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.”

And also:

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.

Singal writes:

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.


Leo G said...

" and, from an equality standpoint, we wouldn’t want to anyway"

So this is the new way of science? As in climate science, when a study gets published that goes against the new orthodoxy, it always contains signals that the NO is righteous!

What a pile of bunk!

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

"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."

This is one of the silliest things I've ever read. Who is "Modern Life"? How do we meet said person? What are they accountable to/for?

How can an inanimate, conceptual "it" prevent all these amazing things the author suggests?

This is classic modern nonsense: there is this mysterious societal force that is conspiring against our happiness, and we need to stop it!

Another bogeyman. Another crisis. We must have more regulation of modern life, establish a commission to investigate it, have a plan/program to address it, or create a never-ending "war" against it that will further bankrupt us. Our leaders must do something!

The problem with modern life is how WE live it. We create our modern life. It's not a dark, shadowy force that stops us from being happy.

Good grief.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

I enjoy Twenge's work. What she's pointing to here is confusion.

It strikes me that our young people have so many options, too little guidance, make few hard choices, and very little commitment is expected of them. That's enough to create anxiety and depression for any young person. Sounds like they need connection.

What they seem to get is the Glowing Box. And an ever-extending childhood, which delays responsibility.

Unknown said...

Here's why kids are like that:

1) The unremitting attack on all waves of "feminism," and society in general. Young men were once taught about developing the inner strength to deal with issues and to control their emotions, essentially become Stoic. Now, its all "emo", all the time; masculinity and self-control are "BAAAAD."

2) Baby boom created huge number of psychologists all of whom needed jobs doing something psych-related: counselors, coaches and grief handlers, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. All the criteria for mental problems were loosened considerably, so those who, in the past, were thought "different", are now considered mentally ill or diseased, needing psycho-help from the hoardes of psych-workers. I easily survived the deaths of classmates from accidents without seeing any grief counselors, yet my kids are now exposed to waves of "help" if their classmates suffer an unfortunate accident or death.

3) Big Pharma. SSRIs, such as Prozac and its ilk, generate billions$$$ in profits, even though they barely pass placebo tests (Prozac had to be re-tested several times before it passed the FDA's placebo tests.) And they are prescribed for every ailment from PMS to schizophrenia!

Wm Sears said...

The floggings will continue until morale improves.

Another possible explanation is the expansion of state schools over the last century. From six to eight years to twelve to sixteen or more (college) coupled with the lengthening of the school day and the school year. Given the increasing similarity of schools to prisons it is no wonder young people are increasingly depressed. Add to the mix that less is learned as the system is expanded and you see the meaning of my opening sentence. I once got an unsolicited phone call from some organisation that wanted my support for an initiative to deal with bullying. I told him that the solution was easy: abolish the state school since it is this organisation that creates the atmosphere that encourages bullying. From my personal experience bullying was a school phenomenon and did not exist during summer vocation. After much huffing and puffing this quickly ended our conversation.

Sam L. said...

Also, the rotten education and lack of jobs.

David Foster said...
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David Foster said...

"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"...reminds me of something Chesterton said:

"The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing that is really narrow is the clique....The men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment like that which exists in hell"

I think that Chesterton's words represent an important truth, but by no means the whole truth. It is true that much is lost in modern society to the extent that people only associate with others like them. But it is also true that much is lost in traditional societies to the extent that people are denied the opportunity to seek out others of similar interests. And also, in traditional societies, the "fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences" of which Chesterton writes are often to a large extent mediated by standardized and ritualistic behavior.

Ares Olympus said...
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Ares Olympus said...

In wondering about Young People, I'd consider our modern "always connected" social networking as problematic. I feel rather fortunate to have been a child before computers and the internet took over.

While my niece, born in the mid-90s started texting in her teens, and decide it was better than face-to-face communication, and even better than talking on the phone, and now in her 20s has a smart phone so social media is with her 24-7.

And there's the Facebook effect where MOST people tend to project their best sides online. And now we're no longer faced with friends and family showing their vacation pictures, but its all online, and you can look through as your leisure, or at least look at a few pictures and wonder why they can afford such stylish trips while we're just getting by paying bills and paying down debt.

What I see now, and strangely even more now after the 2008 crisis, is many people see "growing up" means "debt" not as a necessary evil, but something that allows the good life. AND it all makes sense for ambitious people because they rationalize "I'm working hard, so I deserve what I can afford" even when they can't, and with no savings, when big unpredictable expenses come like car repairs, its all on the credit card.

So I can blame the fanancialization of the economy that started expanding in the 1980s. I've always had a savings account and it would hurt my pride to borrow money to buy something I want. I remember my mom very carefully balancing her checkbook each month, and she did borrow money from her sisters family at times, and when we needed another car, we got "hand me downs" from relatives who could afford a new car, and I imagine they paid cash, but I don't know.

So I imagine modern computer allowing modern banking, and modern credit system that has MANY positive traits, but always "small print" consequences down the road, and now we live in a world where the money supply expands by new debt, and expanding money expands asset prices, and if people STOP borrowing even for a short period, everything breaks down, and companies lose money, and lay off workers into a spiraling slowdown of the economy, where more debt is threatened into default.

So I think by opportunity the world now is "MUCH BETTER" for people like me who are frugal, but its being propped up by reckless borrowing in individuals, governments, corporations at all levels, and we no longer know how to live without that ever growing debt, and many people are much more vulnerable.

A friend I was talking today, she said her friend lost her job recently, and said she has to earn $50k/year to make it, so she can't even look at jobs that earn less than that. But my friend reflected that she had been paid half of that 7 years ago, but now wasn't willing to cut her living expenses back enough to work her way back up into another company. And I have to imagine debt payments, like a new car, and perhaps credit card payments make the difference.

So if you want to be anxious and depressed, that might mean you're scared everything can fall down tomorrow AND are powerless to handle that threat.

I know most people refuse to think about the threats I'm willing to think about, and perhaps mine are not the right ones either.

Living below your means seems a good bet, although apparently Trump University discouraged that because it means you won't think big. Trump's probably right on that. If you think big enough, you can start your own pyramid scheme and step out before it crashes down again. That's what winners do.

Soon America is going to start winning again, and under Trump's leadership we can triple our debt in 8 years rather than merely double, and we'll be making too much money to worry about anything.