Meritocracy and its Discontents   /   Summer 2016   /    Notes And Comments

The Young, the Uneasy

Joseph E. Davis

Edvard Munch. Anxiety (detail), 1894. Munch Museum, Oslo, MMM 515. © 2008 The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

The continuing demonstrations on college campuses and the frequent conflicts over alleged “microaggressions,” the need for “trigger warnings,” and the lack of “safe spaces”—all and suchlike have generated a steady stream of commentary, much of it focused on the seeming psychological fragility of students. Observers cite college counseling service reports and student surveys showing rising levels of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and other manifestations of struggle. They worry about students’ lack of emotional regulation and resilience, their low tolerance of disappointment, and their hypersensitivity to any perceived slight. In a widely circulated September 2015 article in Psychology Today, “Crisis U,” Hara Estroff Marano argued that more and more students “know no middle psychic ground: Mere frustration catapults them into crisis.”

Some people have been skeptical. Last fall, New York magazine senior editor Jesse Singal aired his suspicion that all the talk about the growing fragility of young people was a “myth.” He cited the lack of “solid longitudinal evidence” demonstrating “increasing amounts of anxiety or depression or suicidality (or other symptoms)” over time.

But even Singal has done an about-face. Recently, he announced that he had found a psychologist with evidence showing that since the 1930s, young Americans “have reported feeling increasingly anxious and depressed.” Why exactly this is so was not clear, Singal noted, though he drew his own conclusions from the psychologist’s broad conjectures: “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.”

Intentional or not, Singal’s thin counsel sounds a theme common in much of the contemporary literature on fragile students. Psychologists and other observers typically frame the problems that youth experience as matters of faulty thinking. Conspicuously lacking is any discussion of the institutional changes that might have contributed to the making of such fragile young people, changes that have revised the very meaning of childhood and how it is lived. Diagnosing an epidemic of “distorted thinking,” psychologists then prescribe “critical thinking skills” as the treatment.

That’s certainly the formula laid out in Marano’s “Crisis U,” and even more clearly in an article in last September’s Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” In this 7,000-word piece, Lukianoff and Haidt provide only a couple of paragraphs on how changes in “childhood itself” might be contributing to the emotional crises on campus. They focus instead on the various “habits of thought”—for example, reasoning from subjective feelings, predicting the future negatively, magnifying the importance of small events—that are on display in controversial incidents. They also suggest steps that might be taken to “help reverse the tide of bad thinking.”

Yet even talk of “bad thinking” is too much alarmism for Singal. He objects to it because it “all seem[s] to come down to culture, to the idea that parents or kids or administrators are doing—or being pressured to do—something wrong and maladaptive and harmful, and that this can explain all or most of the ostensible rise in student fragility.” These accounts, he argues, are contributing to a new “moral panic” and indulging in the same old overreaction to which adults have long been prone: “proffering cultural theories for why everything was falling apart.”

This general proscription against cultural analysis is both curious and revealing. If we take young people and their struggles seriously, then shouldn’t we be asking hard questions about their situation, wherever these questions may lead? The circumstances under which children are raised and socialized have changed profoundly over the past half century, as has the experience of growing up. These changes, spurred by far-reaching social and demographic changes, are broadly familiar, at least with respect to the middle class. They include the decline of relatively stable and uniform patterns of child rearing and the increased prevalence of permissive and consensus-oriented rules for children. The complications of such a changed social reality cannot be negligible factors in the struggles of today’s youth.

But the focus on faulty thinking, self-absorption, and other explanations that locate the problem at the individual level divert attention away from the role of families, communities, and institutions. Even discussions of the competitive environment and achievement orientation of certain high schools and colleges lead back to the idea that student problems arise from a misreading of pressure and disappointment. Such problems, we are told, can be addressed by teaching “life skills,” in the ways that are already being applied so extensively through school-based programs that promote resilience, mindfulness, wellness, and the like. There is no crisis of fragility and instability among young people that a more extensive therapeutic regime, with even more counselors and administrators, can’t handle—or so the thinking goes.

But what if the charges of bad thinking and narcissism miss the mark? In my experience, listening to students talk about their social worlds leads to different conclusions. What stands out is not what young people misperceive about others or themselves. It is, rather, the all-too-understandable ways in which they say they negotiate the social complexity and flux they face on every side.

This social environment, shaped by family, school, peers, consumer culture, and all manner of representational media, makes many demands on them. Most important is the need, felt at younger and younger ages, for children to define their own lives, to choose who and what they want to be and become. In much of their daily lives, even at school, they are confronted by a range of experiential options and identity choices. They are exhorted to be “passionate” about something—anything—and to live up to their potential. They are required to define their future and work hard on themselves to achieve their goals. They are constantly evaluated—relative to educational benchmarks, developmental stages, or other standardized measures of success—and are often labeled according to the results. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, for example, is defined in one influential formulation as an impairment in a child’s will such that he or she cannot adequately keep goals and consequences in mind. Children are largely expected to construct their own world and take responsibility for decisions about their lives.

Such expectations represent both a new freedom and a new dilemma. The freedom and relative autonomy get a lot of publicity—enabling new forms of growth and development, for instance, or creating opportunities to overcome less-than-pleasant accidents of birth and make one’s own place in the world. But the demand to “be somebody” can also be a tiring trial. Without rituals or stable institutions, young people, with or without helicopter parents, are left increasingly to their own resources in determining the shape their lives will take. Not only is it challenging to know what decisions to make; it is hard to know what the consequences might be. Further, all choices are made in a context of status consciousness and academic competition, with a very real possibility of falling short on a whole array of capacities and traits, from intelligence to affability to good looks. Under these conditions, especially, the self-created life is difficult to construct and hard to maintain.

Another challenge arises not so much from external pressure as from the common social interactions through which many young people seek to “author” themselves. Under conditions of weak formative institutions, the metaphor of authoring is apt because the creation of a personal reality out of choices and acts of volition amounts to a kind of fiction. In negotiating their world, where tangible role-based identities are less and less available, young people seek to construct some sense of continuity and personal distinctiveness out of a constellation of tastes, judgments, and affiliations, chosen from among the options available to them. The resulting self is the one they strive to represent to—and to perform for—others.

Nearly everyone now nurtures self-making in these terms. Friends, real and virtual, tacitly affirm each other’s representations, while adults, especially when offering evaluations of any sort, carefully couch and qualify whatever they say lest young people feel that their very person is being disparaged or judged. The result can sometimes border on obsequiousness, but it always seems to involve a buffering of consequences from action. Social media like Facebook are precisely designed to facilitate these self-representations by providing access to the range of possibilities such self-making depends on. That is one reason young people become so engrossed in and dependent on them.

At the individual level, the claims made for the self-created life seem modest. There is no demand for social recognition or the kind of negotiations that such recognition would necessitate. One is entitled to one’s self-understanding, and so is everyone else. All that such selves ask for is non-interference, that they not be challenged, and that others be (in the sense the word is now taken precisely to mean) nice. Not everything is optional, however, and there are always risks that one’s self-representations will be contested or that one’s performance will come off poorly. This is a crucial reason, social scientist Sherry Turkle explains in her recent book Reclaiming Conversation, why young people text now rather than call. The telephone call, unscripted, is dangerous.

The challenges that real life inevitably poses to the precariously constructed self result in both a need for constant vigilance and a growing reliance on therapeutic assistance. Ironically—we might even say tragically—young people say that much of what they get from mental-health treatment is professional reassurance that their personal struggles, whether with grades or breakups or motivation, require little, if any, meaningful re-evaluation of how they became so vulnerable. Such a re-evaluation would, in any case, be unthinkable to many young people. As one young woman told me in an interview, “I can’t just listen to something and believe it; I have to actually feel it.” In such circumstances, the counselor’s role, she said, is narrow but essential: to “help you feel what’s right for you.”

Counselors and administrators will provide more buffers, while the “critical thinking” they promote will reinforce the belief that each self is, in every respect, an authority unto itself. If there is faulty thinking going around, it is, unfortunately, just this.