Economic Uncertainty and Mental Health

Jennifer Silva discusses the mental health effects of economic changes on young people.

Over the past forty or fifty years we see young adults waiting much longer to get married and start families and being more likely to bounce around from job to job rather than settling down into a career. They’re also living at home longer and taking longer to complete higher education.

This has been met with a lot of mockery and scorn by the public and media, with a perception that young people are entitled, irresponsible or lazy. For me, the questions are ‘why can’t people grow up?’, ‘what are the social and economic obstacles that are standing in their way?’. I situate young people’s experiences within the disappearance of stable blue collar jobs, the rising cost and complexity of education and the pressures on relationships and families in a world where you have to rely on yourself to survive.

When people tell their stories about growing up, they want to show they hit publicly recognised markers; “look, I have a diploma”, or “I got my first job and a promotion”. But the young people I spoke with can’t really point to any of these; they’re bouncing from one unstable job to the next or they’re in and out of college or they don’t have a stable place to live. They can’t say “look at all these things I’ve accomplished so now I’m grown up.”

Our self-help culture tells people that happiness is a mindset, and this dovetails with the idea that economic success and security is yours if you only work hard enough.

Neoliberalism is a fundamental change in worldview and public policy. It is an imagined world of individualism and personal responsibility, where freedom is redefined as the lack of government intervention. This has had serious policy ramifications. We see the cutting of welfare benefits, the cutting of support to poor families, deregulation of labour, and the breaking down of unions, the breaking down of collective effort.

Shockingly, most of the people I spoke to really do believe in this worldview. People said things like “my grandfather had to dig ditches to make his way up in the world and no-one helped him.” People ascribe meaning and value to their lives by having to make it on their own, without any help and without blaming anyone else.

These young men and women experience disappointment and betrayal in most of their interaction with social institutions. That makes them very distrustful and they adopt an attitude of “I can’t trust anyone, I have to depend on only myself.” That resonates with the neoliberal attitude, that everyone has to go it alone. So they make a virtue out of it – if they depend on others, they’ll get hurt in the end.

When I asked young people “what is your biggest risk?” they responded “I’m my biggest risk because I won’t move across the country where there might be better jobs”, or “because I won’t take out more loans to get a master’s degree”. There is a sense that if you haven’t made it, it’s your fault.

During the interviews, people wanted to talk about their pasts, about difficult family relationships, or problems like depression, anxiety, addictions. They would say “I’ve struggled with depression, but if I want to feel better, only I can change myself.”

This is lot like the way they talk about their jobs, which is “if I want to succeed and make money I have to take risks and depend only on myself”. Our self-help culture tells people that happiness is yours, it’s a mindset, you have to go out and get it, and this dovetails with the idea that economic success and security is yours if you only work hard enough. And so in all aspects of their life people are being told “it’s up to you, you have to fix it”.

The first step is naming the problem, and the next is to come together to identify and transform the roots of the problem.

But this isn’t happening, because people are very isolated; they’re not embedded in communities that they trust. So they name their unhappiness but they don’t bond with other people because they believe that taking responsibility for their own fate is what makes you a valuable or worthy person.

The insecurity and distrust seeps into family life and it makes people really afraid of committing to others, whether in a long-term relationship or a marriage. They’re so afraid of risking everything in a relationship that they decide to be alone. I think that portends that future isolation could get worse.

Edited transcript of an interview conducted by Jonathan Adams about the author’s book Coming Up Short: Working Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty.

Jennifer Silva is a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University.

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Jennifer Silva

Jennifer Silva