Youth and Anxiety

The imperatives to stand out and be all you can be are exacting a heavy toll

Posted Aug 23, 2020

Earlier this year, I wrote a short essay for the Institute for Family Studies on “The Deeper Roots of Youth Anxiety.” I argued that the typical explanations of rising youth anxiety do not go deep enough. They miss the impacts of the ongoing and unprecedented restructuring of society in recent decades and the imperative it places on young people to define themselves and the shape of their life by reference to their own preferences, desires, and choices. Interviews with youth show that enacting life in terms of choice carries many risks, especially in a social context where one’s status and worth are measured by standing out from the crowd and living up to one’s distinctive (and highest) potential.

After the essay appeared, the Institute on Culture and Society at the University of Navarre in Pamplona, Spain contacted me about an interview, which appeared on their website in Spanish in July. The following are excerpts.

Q: What are the implications of living in a society where continuous success and “standing out” are the norm?

A: While suffering always feels unique to the sufferer, we can only understand it in light of the society we live in and the normative standards and ideals that make it possible. In our “liquid times,” to use the late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s apt phrase, much of the taken-for-granted social order—social roles, cultural institutions, formative communities, and the like—have declined. We are now each expected to author our life as if on a blank canvas, without fixed points. It falls on us to choose and decide, at younger and younger ages, who we are and seek to be.

That reflexive authoring of self would be challenging enough, but we don’t make the identity choices in a vacuum. As I found in my interviews with young people, there are very specific social norms and performance expectations that they felt a strong obligation to live up to and against which they (and others) measured themselves. One of these obligations was to optimize themselves, to constantly improve and be all that they can be. In practice, this meant a continuous demand for and need to demonstrate tangible achievements. A related obligation was the need to establish and make visible their distinctiveness; to show that their self-making project was singular and successful, a life that others would take notice of and even envy.

There are many implications of trying to live this way but let me mention just two. One, especially for young people, is that they become preoccupied with social comparisons in almost every area of their life. They used peer comparison to understand what identity options were available and how they were measuring up, and, at the same time, sought constant feedback to avoid the shame and humiliation of doing the wrong thing or appearing naïve or weird. Self-making in these terms generates a lot of uncertainty, dissatisfaction, and regret.

A second implication of trying to live these standards is the possibility of paralysis and loss of motivation. Without the guidance of institutions and traditions, how is one to decide what to be? Are all the proliferating options equally good? How does one decide and how can one know the consequences of the decision? What about failure, the possibility of disappointing people, the possibility that one might appear average and undistinguished? The specter of falling short or making the wrong choices fosters anxiety and self-blame, and, for some, leads to withdrawing or dropping out.

Q: What is the role of social networks in this process of self-making?

A: I have already mentioned the crucial role of peer comparison and feedback for accessing the identity options and gauging one’s choices. Social media platforms have come to serve an important function in facilitating, in real time, the acquiring of this information.

Another role corresponds with the demand that accomplishments be documented and publicized. Among the reasons for all the striving to optimize yourself and stand out is to not let others or yourself down—not to be a disappointment or a “loser.” Social media provide a space where people can demonstrate and confirm the success of their self-making and these forums are especially attractive for this purpose because they allow people to present a picture of themselves that’s heavily curated and airbrushed. The better to show that one is standing out. The mundane details of one’s life can be made to glow. Of course, more perniciously, one can claim a superior position by using social media to make others appear inferior. This is all too common.

Q: You wrote that nowadays we leave kids to develop themselves in an autonomous way and that this creates problems. What is the importance of structure—cultural, social, family, and so on—for the development of young people?

A: An old sociological idea, going back at least to the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, is that the more people are thrown back on themselves because of weak institutional guidance and constraint, the more vulnerable they become. If quote the philosopher Hans Blumenberg on this point: He says that our existence is a “potentially self-assertive [‘emergent’] autonomy that is constrained by anthropological limits and stabilized and humanized by institutions, which by forming a livable world limit arbitrariness and make action and reflection possible.” Put differently, in order to realize our potentialities, we need structure and rules and an orientation to our place in the world. We, as individuals, can’t give these things to ourselves.

Instead of imparting a way of life to our kids, a task requiring traditions and stable institutions and communities, we ask young people to make up a life out of themselves and then freight their choices with high expectations of success. We call them to exercise agency and even “leadership,” but do not give them the knowledge and experience that makes genuine achievement possible. We call them to be and demonstrate their individuality, but without grounding them in what is commonly shared or given the space to experiment or fail or live unmeasured. And on it goes. A freedom that is little more than our preferences provides no grounds on which to realize ourselves or form commitments to others. In fact, it is a recipe for the very disaster we see playing itself out in the tremendous rates of anxiety and other mental health problems. 

Q: Does considering a person as an autonomous chooser affect our understanding of human dignity?

A: Of course, on the one hand, the freedom and autonomy to decide who we are and what we care about is a great good, allowing us to control and direct important aspects of our lives. Being stuck without choices in important matters is itself very stressful. And having standards by which we judge our own and others’ actions is both proper and necessary. The standards are what make social order and human excellence possible.

The trouble enters the picture, as I’ve already suggested, in a conception of freedom as a disengagement from anything unchosen. Disengagement also fosters a way of relating to ourselves as a kind of object or abstract image (such as on the model of a product “brand”). Social media platforms, as I’ve mentioned, can encourage this objectification. They can foster in young people (everyone actually) a way of looking at themselves as though they're looking at someone else, or, more accurately, at some thing that can be sculpted and molded from the outside. They can foster an instrumental view of themselves, their experience, and their “network” of relationships. This view is inconsistent with genuine human dignity.