By most measures, we are living in an unprecedented era of good tidings. The economy has expanded for a record 122 months straight. Unemployment, in the United States, is at levels unseen since the Kennedy administration. The S&P 500 has nearly tripled in the last decades. Even the tyranny of the cable companies has been eroded. Thanks to Netflix and other streaming services, an unprecedented bounty of entertainment is everywhere. And to top it all off, Popeye’s and Chick-fil-A are battling to perfect the chicken sandwich. By all the regular measures, things are going swimmingly.
And yet, anxiety is the new normal. Sure, the economy is doing great, but the unceasing trade war with China is eroding consumer confidence. Turn on CNN, and you’ll be treated to wall-to-wall coverage of the supposedly impending recession, done in a style previously reserved for major hurricanes. The inverted yield curve has jumped from economics textbooks to a solemn article of faith in popular discourse. The slump in RV sales? Recession predictor.
Beyond issues of the wallet, the very new “superstorm” reminds people of the toll climate change is taking to the planet. Decades of inaction are building the urgency to address what is truly an existential threat. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swede, has emerged as a star of Gen Z for bluntly calling bullshit on world leaders who have done little to nothing to arrest the inexorable climate changes that are wreaking havoc on the world.
The pessimism many feel when it comes to addressing a challenge on the scale of climate change tracks to the fecklessness of much of the world’s politics. Donald Trump has tapped into deep-seated anxiety that goes beyond economic indicators. Identity politics, normally relegated to the sidelines, have become central. Societal divisions are hardening. Rancor has replaced reasonable disagreement. Migration has emerged as a hot-button political issue that is more emotion than policy disagreement. Any economist would point to the benefits of rising immigration numbers in balancing for aging societies. But the perceived loss of identity trumps that.
Technology, once regarded as an infallible sign of progress (and American exceptionalism), has come under a harsher glare. The role of Facebook in the manipulation of elections and incitement of ethnic pogroms has given lie to the idea that connecting the world would lead to a better world. Not long ago, Twitter was hailed for bringing down dictatorships; now, it’s a favored tool of wannabe dictators and thuggish trolls. The always-on era was originally an unimaginable luxury. We could have a world of communications and connectivity with us at all times on our phones. Instead, we’ve become addicted, mindlessly scrolling feeds and returning again and again to our Instagram to find how many likes our sunset photo got and how many people checked out our Instagram Story.
Instagram seems to recognize the issue. It is testing not showing likes to users or how many people viewed their Story. Apple has built-in screen-time reminders to get people to stop looking at their phones constantly. The rise of TikTok can, in some ways, be seen as a backlash to the social preening of Facebook and Instagram. On TikTok, there are no likes or follower counts, just mostly people acting goofy and being creative. For now, it is one social network not overrun by trolls (although the creeps have, naturally, found it).
Mental health, barely discussed a decade ago, is thought of now to be an epidemic. The World Economic Forum estimates that mental health disorders have direct and indirect costs equal to 4% of the world’s gross domestic product. The price tag could amount to $16 trillion from 2010 to 2030. Everyone from NBA players to hip-hop stars are speaking out about their own struggles with expectations and pressure. The idea of “toughing it out” has gone by the wayside. Much of the current anxiety springs more from an openness to acknowledging the toll uncertainty takes.