What ails the youth of our fair land?

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.

This entry was posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, History. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to What ails the youth of our fair land?

  1. Jim says:


    I’m going to do a typical economist’s thing here and agree with both Paul Krugman and you on this one. The anxiety is driven by both increasing inequality and cultural reasons. However, I suspect the balance between the two is different in the USA and Australia. Cultural reasons are relatively more important in Australia.

    Warning. Gross generalisation ahead…..

    I also suspect that it is the cultural drivers and the winner takes all attitude developing in Australia that will accellerate the growth of inequality (both through our own actions and our influence on government policy norms). The two sources of anxiety are linked. Australia is heading down a similar inequality pathway to the USA. The only difference is that we are starting that journey 20 years later.

  2. derrida derider says:

    I’m enough of an old Marxist to believe that in the end economics shapes culture more than the other way around. So I’m with Krugman – life is more economically precarious even for educated people, so more anxiety about economic status is rational.

    Though I wouldn’t frame it so much directly as about increasing income inequality but much more in terms of the underlying “Great Risk Shift” – a self-reinforcing combination of the destruction of institutions (unions, social insurance, etc) that collectivised risks for the lower middle class and the development of “winner takes all” industries and industry structures.

  3. Ken Parish says:

    Thanks Nicholas.

    Stats for major depression among youth show that the incidence for kids between 12 and 17 increased from 2.9% to 5.0% between 1998 and 2013-14. The report refers to this as a “modest increase”. It doesn’t report on anxiety conditions, which I take to be less serious in a psychiatric sense. You would suspect that anxiety rates (whether diagnosable or not) have also risen significantly.

    Subjective impressions of something like this are not very reliable for obvious reasons. Nevertheless my own impression is similar to yours and Krugman’s. Why is it so? In Australia’s case, I suspect it has more to do with insecurity than inequality per se.

    As you comment, Australia hasn’t moved towards greater inequality anywhere near as much or as rapidly as the US. However we HAVE moved more quickly towards greater economic and social insecurity than the US over the last 30 years or so. Paul Kelly described our system as the “Australian Settlement” (‘White Australia, Industry Protection, Wage Arbitration, State Paternalism and Imperial Benevolence’). It delivered a high degree of economic and psychological security at least to white Australian workers, but was progressively demolished from the late 1960s onwards.

    Phenomena such as privatisation, outsourcing, labour hire/”independent” contractor arrangements, casualisation and part-time work, 457 visa temporary workers etc have greatly increased Australians’ sense of economic and social insecurity. Anxiety about refugees and terrorism feeds into that mix, as do changes in pension eligibility (progressively raising pensionable age to70) and superannuation changes, although those things don’t really impact youth to any great extent.

    Australians are wealthier than 30-40 years ago but much less secure. Increasing anxiety is an understandable and even inevitable response to that situation. That’s why I’ve been thinking and writing about ideas like a Negative Income Tax and other measures that might provide an underpinning of generally greater economic security without jettisoning the labour market “flexibility” which has undoubtedly contributed to growth, jobs and wealth.

    Those concrete economic developments have certainly been accompanied by cultural change, as you observe (losers, bogans etc). But at least some of that cultural change has been deliberately driven by the same people who engineered much of the economic change: organisations like the IPA, HR Nicholls Society and assorted other right wing thinktanks, aided and abetted by more Labor-leaning thinktanks who equally universally embrace market-based solutions, albeit with slightly warmer, fuzzier edges. IMO the moderate left in Australia still hasn’t thought through in any coherent sense how one might sustainably engineer social democracy and fairness within a predominantly market-based economic system.

  4. Ken Parish says:

    I see Derrida Derider posted a similar but less verbose comment while I was writing the above one!

  5. Nicholas Gruen says:

    DD and Ken,

    I’m fine with the basic idea that the economy influences the culture more than the other way around – or that the base drives the superstructure – to use the Marxist terminology. But I’d say that this is a long-term phenomenon. The hollowing out/commodification of cultural life is surely a phenomenon of capitalism. Objectively I don’t think my kids generation (at least at the privileged end where I was and my kids and their peers are) provides any more rational grounds for anxiety than my generation had. (The cold war was going on you know!). But levels of anxiety are much higher now.

    • John walker says:

      The worship of the capricious and cruel Goddess Fortuna is a surely a big factor in the mix. Mind that one is pretty eternal :’Until he is dead, do not yet call a man happy, so far he’s merely fortunate’.

      Feel that the endless ‘ variations on the ‘lifestyles of the famous’ that make up so much oy our 24-7 media ‘content’ these days, combined with the seemingly endless blizzard of feckless ; opinion , gossip moralising , trolling and general ignorance that is Social Media must be significant new muliplier for the growth of anxiety.


      Georges Mora once told me ( over a very good lunch) that when he arrived in Melbourne in 1950 that: the food was basic, the coffee was merde, but on the otherhand , there was lots of food, the people were friendly and “nobody was trying to kill me”.

      It does help to keep a sense of ‘proportion’, no ?

  6. I like to consider the rise of the internet as an unrecognized source of some recent problems – I suspect, for example, that it has been key for the spread and persistence of climate change denialism. My hunch is that it also has something to do with modern youth anxiety, too. I mean, the matter of cyber-bullying, and weird things like pro-anorexia sites, are obvious; but there are probably more subtle things going on…

    And yes, I agree: it’s remarkable, in hindsight, how people just got on with life in the 60’s to 80’s without (much) anxiety about potential nuclear destruction. Perhaps people had faith in leaders being sensible enough to never go over the edge. Strangely, a fair slab of nutty Americans want to test that by supporting an orange tinged angry buffoon for President.

  7. Tyler says:

    As one of the resident yoof i’d have some sympathy with both the insecurity and cultural explanations relating as they do to the decline of meaningful avenues for social and economic solidarity. That being said i’m a priveleged white post-grad student so i’d struggle to relate meaningfully to the challenges faced by more typical working class/middle class young people.

  8. Tyler says:

    To expand on the hanson point above i think one of the strongest points that magazines like Jacobin have started raising in recent times is how pernicious the contempt for the lower middle class amongst the privelged social democrat/neoliberal class has been. In an age when opinions on complex matters of sexual and cultural identity are policed with a degree of self righteous viciousness being on the bottom of the pile economically is increasingly related to broader ‘moral’ failings.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks Tyler,

      It is taboo to deprecate another culture, no matter how distasteful one finds its values or practices. Airbrushing things we don’t like out of our understanding of cultures is one thing, but to disapprove – that would be racist and beyond the pale. The burqa? No problem. It’s not an affront to western values that those in public spaces are in principle identifiable.

      There’s just one exception. Bogan culture. I don’t much go for Pauline Hanson or Jackie Lambie, but it’s a democracy. I don’t see them as worse than lots of politicians who are not subject to the kind of routine harassment and name calling that they are. And in important ways they’re better. They’ve got the courage of their convictions – quite literally – they’re courageous people with strong views which I see as a thoroughly legitimate part of the conversation even if I will often disagree.

      And there are plenty of people from their neck of the woods who are thoroughly good news. I’m thinking of Ricky Muir, though I haven’t taken a lot of notice of him, so those who have may be able to change my mind.

    • John walker says:

      Hi have you read “the leopard”, or seen the Visconti film ( it’s good). Towards the end the leopard says:
      ” We were the Leopards, the Lions; those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals, and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.”

      So be it.

  9. paul frijters says:

    Hi Nick,

    I have a paper on this with Andrew Leigh called ‘Materialism on the march’. It’s about 10 years old now, but we blame mobility for this trend: the more mobile people are, the more status gets signaled by easily observable items like wealth, and the less by harder-to-observe items like erudition and social spirit. So status becomes more one-dimensional.

    The moral of our analysis: if you want to reduce the level of materialism, you should encourage higher stamp duties on house sales, greater use of waiting lists in schools and hospitals (those who are mobile lose their place in the queue), less economic dynamism, and no harmonization of quality signals across regions.

    • John walker says:

      Hi Paul
      Remember reading about eminent economist who, some years ago wrote of something like, a emerging panic of , “signalling “, do you know who it was?

    • conrad says:

      Surely this predicts that there should be decent cross-cultural differences in anxiety levels, as well as within-country differences. For example, at least by my eyeballs, people are far less likely to display their wealth in France than Germany despite both being similarly wealthy — For example, flashy cars are everywhere in Germany but not France. I don’t know of any evidence that Germans are much more anxious compared to the the French because of this (NZ and Aus would be a similar example although the difference is less).

      As it happens, I personally don’t think there is any definitive evidence that anxiety levels have gone up (I think a large part is biologically driven if there are not serious environmental stressors, and there are many studies looking and suggesting this) — simply that people are more aware of what anxiety is and that its manifestations differ over time so it looks like people are more anxious if people can identify a single large common manifestation. I also think people simple forget what happened decades ago. For example, the 20th Century was a clearly stressful time with conscription, serious wars and so on (these are serious stressors). I find it hard to imagine that a lot of this time would have been less anxiety provoking than now.

      • paul frijters says:

        but I am not talking about anxiety, I am talking about materialism. And is mobility higher in Germany where you say conspicuous consumption is higher? There is certainly more migration into it as the German economy attracts lots of migrants. I don’t really know about the levels of internal migration.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        Much less so for the baby boomers – who enjoyed continued peace – with a cold war sitting in the background, not very real if it isn’t affecting the way you live. #WeAreABitDimLikeThat

    • John walker says:

      Hi Paul
      Congrats on the FWC ruling!

  10. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Paul,

    A pretty powerful thought.

  11. Nicholas Gruen says:

    A very apposite article has just arrived in the Atlantic Monthly (which is infact hourly these days).

    The concerns that [Adam Smith] voiced are … interestingly different from those that dominate contemporary discourse. When people worry about inequality today, they generally worry that it inhibits economic growth, prevents social mobility, impairs democracy, or runs afoul of some standard of fairness. … None of these problems, however, were Smith’s chief concern [which was] that economic inequality distorts people’s sympathies, leading them to admire and emulate the very rich and to neglect and even scorn the poor. …

    Smith held, people sympathize more fully and readily with the rich than the poor: “the rich man glories in his riches, because … they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world,” while “the poor man goes out and comes in unheeded, and when in the midst of a crowd is in the same obscurity as if shut up in his own hovel.” Not only are people far more likely to notice the rich than the poor, according to Smith, but they are also far more likely to approve of them, to admire them, and to emulate them ….

    What’s more, Smith saw this distortion of people’s sympathies as having profound consequences: It undermines both morality and happiness. … Smith saw the widespread admiration of the rich as morally problematic because he did not believe that the rich in fact tend to be terribly admirable people. … Thus, it is precisely the presence of economic inequality, and the distortion of people’s sympathies that attends it, that allows—perhaps even encourages—the rich to spurn the most basic standards of moral conduct. Smith goes so far as to proclaim that the “disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition” is “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

    Smith also believed that the tendency to sympathize with the rich more easily than the poor makes people less happy. As I am reminded every year by my students, those who encounter Smith’s writings for the first time are usually quite surprised to learn that he associated happiness with tranquility—a lack of internal discord—and insisted not only that money can’t buy happiness but also that the pursuit of riches generally detracts from one’s happiness. He speaks, for instance, of “all that leisure, all that ease, all that careless security, which are forfeited forever” when one attains great wealth, and of “all that toil, all that anxiety, all those mortifications which must be undergone” in the pursuit of it. …

    Why, then, do the vast majority of people spend the vast majority of their lives longing for and pursuing wealth? Smith saw it as obvious that people do not work so hard in order “to supply the necessities of nature”—that is, to obtain food, clothing, and shelter—because “the wages of the meanest laborer can afford them.” Rather, they want great wealth because of the attention it brings them: “It is the vanity, not the ease, or the pleasure, which interests us.”

  12. Thomas says:

    Nicholas, interesting post.

    I think there is a real difference in between the generations. Mostly for university students. Absolute inequality may not have advanced that far, but I think that real inequality between degree holders might have spread a lot further.

    In my parents’ generation, pretty much all degree holders went on to middle class lives. Success meant getting out of your bohemian student accommodation faster, and into a nicer house. Failure meant the opposite. Oh well.

    In my generation, failure can be far more bleak. Many of us can think of someone with a middle class upbringing and a degree who, 5-10 years after graduating, still hasn’t landed a relevant job. They’ve moved back with their parents, take 20+ km trips on public transport, rarely see their old friends, they’re single. It’s not a great look.

    Success may also be more necessary. The good white-collar jobs look like they used to. But in the world of unpaid internships, there’s a growing concern about white-collar jobs with distinctly working-class aspects. Insecurity, no empowerment, little chance to learn new skills or advance in the organisation. Getting onto the success track may matter further up Maslow’s hierarchy than it used to.

    Well, that’s a perception. As always, it would be interesting to try to get some stats and compare it to reality.

    • conrad says:

      I think this is just a perception — I don’t how old you are but when I went to uni a vastly smaller percentage of the population did, unlike now where probably 40% or more of young people are going. So a better way to look at it is whether the bottom 40% of, say, people under 30, are worse off than previous generations ignoring university status. Seems very unlikely. It just seems bad that someone with a degree doesn’t get a great job now even if, overall, a greater proportion of people do.

      Apart from that it’s a very straight white male perspective (and I’m not bringing this up to be annoying). Statistically, you are far better off now than 30 years ago if you are female (so there’s more than half the population), gay (you won’t get harassed, discriminated against, and beaten up as much, nor put in jail — so there’s another 5% of the population), and not-white (excluding a few groups who are still poorly off, but not as bad as before).

      Even looking at white males, the unemployment rate is now very low and there are many more professional jobs — in fact the main group that are likely to be worse often are older white males who did back-breaking jobs which now no-longer exist. Many now exist off health related pensions.

  13. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Thomas

    Interesting thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.