Here’s Paul Krugman giving a commencement address. Eschewing inspiration porn, the talk is kind of what you’d expect. He talks about what it might be like to be a young person starting out at college now compared with when he started, and says how much better it’s got in terms of discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation. And how much worse economic inequality has got.
All pretty fair enough. Then he comments that, back when he was going through college not only were values such that Wall St was a place for the dumbos to go and academia was where the bright kids went, but also that people weren’t so pre-occupied with ‘success’. Some would come top of the class, and some wouldn’t. Some would bust their gut, and some wouldn’t. But everyone would end up having access to a secure middle class existence.
By contrast today, he says that his experience is that young people are far more anxious about how things will turn out, much more aware of themselves as locked in a race to get to and stay at the top with anxieties about not making it much higher all round. Because he has such partisan instincts, he seems to put all this down to the fact that America’s economy has become so much more unequal. As he says at one point, people are right to be as anxious as they are. The world is a dangerous place and the middle class isn’t safe any more.
Without disagreeing with Krugman’s quest against widening inequality, I don’t buy this as a very compelling explanation for anxiety. I think what we’re looking at is largely a cultural phenomenon. Inequality hasn’t grown in Australia by anything like the amount it has in the States, but I detect the same kind of anxiety amongst my kids’ generation. And my recollections of being that age are the same as Krugman’s even though he’s a few years older than me. I recall when I was at uni, you could try hard, or not, and that would determine how well you did, but anxiety levels were not particularly elevated.
A stat that really struck me from listening to an ABC Radio National program (I think All in the Mind) about book The Narcissism Epidemic was that in 1967 45 percent of US college freshmen said that becoming well off financially was important. In 2006 the same figure was 75 percent (p. 163). That’s quite a change.
Why has it happened? I suspect it would be hard to nail down strong evidence, but my own feeling for what it’s worth, is that the variety of things that people aspire to has been collapsing down to a few lowest common denominators – money and fame. Moreover those who do worse in life are somehow more comprehensively marginalised than a generation ago. (This isn’t true by the way of all the ways in which things have got better – we’re much better on discrimination of a whole variety of kinds)
But within the mainstream culture, if you’re not doing so well you’re a ‘loser’. A bogan. People who speak in the vernacular of such groups (I’m thinking of people like Pauline Hanson and Jacquie Lambie) are reviled by the upper middle class in a way that wasn’t true a decade or so ago. I recall when Barrie Unsworth lost an election in NSW shortly after Wran retired. He seemed to be a bit less charismatic than Wran, but his main sin (I recall thinking) was that he was obviously working class. That as something people were learning to become ashamed of. Ironically as we waged war on ideologically visible discrimination, the great losers were the working and lower middle class – those in the dominant culture who weren’t on top. As Pauline Hanson was always complaining, they were the only ones not given some special status of entitlement on account of their disadvantages.
And that leaves you in a bit of a winner takes all race. And lots of anxiety about falling off the straight and narrow path.