Tuesday, October 11, 2022

A Theoretical (?) Adolescent Worries

From an essay by a therapist in the NY Times, on how the rise is teen suicide may show what's wrong with America:

Listening to my patient, it was a question about an unpredictable future that seemed most salient in her suicidal ruminations. This girl, who I will call by her first initial, B., to protect her privacy, spoke passionately about climate change, about racism and inequality, about all the “mental health” issues of her friends who were on this medication and that medication, and had eating disorders, attention disorders, self-harming behaviors and depression. Her burgeoning sexuality was also greeted as a threat — how can I be a sexual woman in this environment? Yes, the pandemic exacerbated a groundless feeling, but the way adolescents investigate their world for its failings means they touch an open wound in this country: What happens when we realize the escalator — so crucial to the American dream — didn’t go anywhere (and maybe never really worked, at least not for many)?

I think a deep sense that things are wrong really is quite common in the US, and also in much of Europe. As to why, I think it is because our leaders keep running for office saying that everything is terrible, and our media have figured out that doom-mongering sells. Think back to 2016, when almost all the Republic presidential candidates portrayed a nation spiraling into chaos; I think it was Ted Cruz who said we have only a few years to fix things before the country "slides off a cliff." Into what, he never really said, but it was sure going to be bad. Trump said similar things. Meanwhile climate alarmists keep setting deadlines for us to control CO2 emissions before the planet is destroyed, and we keep cruising past them. Every hurricane and drought is said to be caused or worsened by climate change, a "sign of impending catastrophe." Despite all the evidence to the contrary, racism is somehow supposed to be getting worse. Every political argument is "existential," and every election poses the threat that our democracy is ending.

Setting aside the question of whether any of that is true, I think you have to recognize that an emotionally unstable teenager might find it all alarming. That kind of rhetoric comes at a psychic cost. 

And then this:

B. also spoke to the contradictions of her parents, who seemed unhappy in their work, in their role as parents, in the privileges accorded to them, along with those denied to them, and were enraged by the political environment on all sides. Yet, she proclaimed, they were pushing their daughters toward the same kinds of achievements and the same lifestyle, and any sign of negative emotion from their children was seen as an attack, as if they were pointing out that the life they were given wasn’t any good, when the reality of everything these parents said pointed to the fact that, well, life wasn’t so good. Why, she proclaimed, would she want any of this, and why do they want her to pretend as if she wants it? “They don’t even pretend they want it, really!” she exclaimed.

I think this is also important. The biggest issue I have seen with young people is a complete lack of interest in anything the adult world has to offer. I spent my whole youth fantasizing about careers, but my children and their friends looked around and saw nothing that appealed to them. Some young women seem to fantasize about their future apartments or houses, and spend time on Instagram looking at beautiful rooms, but I don't know any young men with such dreams. I don't know any young person who is excited by the prospect of dating, and the world around me seems pretty much devoid of passionate youthful love. The most common fantasy seems to be escape; B's version is that she wants to "live in the country and raise big fluffy dogs."

I guess there are still plenty of young careerists around, planning to climb the ladder, but I see a lot more apathy and even disgust. I have mentioned here before the young man I know who loved cars and became a high-level auto mechanic, but he keeps coming up because he is the only young person I know who as "found his passion" and turned it into a career. Otherwise people seem divided between the ones who can't find steady jobs and the ones who have them but hate them. 

This has something to do with inequality and the stagnation of wages, but I think that is only part of the picture. Another part is bureaucracy, the way even basic tasks get bogged down in spreadsheets and statistics; I am perfectly happy with the amount of money I make, and I would willingly take a pay cut if I could do more archaeology and less bureaucracy. There is a spreading sense that far too much of our work is "bullshit," as David Graeber's book put it. 

Between our real problems, and the way every news anchor and politician amplifies them, it's no wonder so many people are anxious and depressed.


David said...


I think you're right about the apocalyptic nature of much of our current public discourse, and the individual and/or adolescent anxiety it can provoke. Although there were fears abroad in the seventies when I was a teen--talk about energy crisis (how quaint that sounds now!), overpopulation, a real Soviet-American nuclear apocalypse, and plenty of doom science fiction--I think the intensity is arguably much more ramped up now. And the partisan divisions really do seem nastier (partly because the substantive disagreements seem, imo anyway, more profound).

But I wonder about the time-specific nature of the problems associated with career and lifestyle choice. This sounds more like something that's been an issue in American life for quite a long time. I think many people have always found work to be a burden, and even hated it--its relentless, day-in-day-out quality, the risks and anxieties associated with performance and possible failure, the fact that for most it involves personal subordination, the way work tensions and tiredness can bring out the worst in people. My father achieved some major things in his field, and he was very proud of his huge capacity for work. But he also hated working ("Make me do my work, David!" he would say when we watched tv together).

It's worth recalling that, in the Bible, work is one of God's curses on humanity, along with desire, the pain of childbirth, and mortality. And of course, we all know people who find nothing to fear or dislike in one or more of these things. They are the happy few.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, this just comes across as every generation's "these kids today...."

Also, I wasn't aware this is the first generation that grew up with problems. Anybody remember the Cold War?