Angst in America, Part 1: Aimless Men

“America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”

– Harry S. Truman

“Unemployment is a weapon of mass destruction.”

– Dennis Kucinich

“Ever since 2000, basic indicators have offered oddly inconsistent readings on America’s economic performance and prospects. It is curious and highly uncharacteristic to find such measures so very far out of alignment with one another. We are witnessing an ominous and growing divergence between three trends that should ordinarily move in tandem: wealth, output, and employment. Depending upon which of these three indicators you choose, America looks to be heading up, down, or more or less nowhere.”

–Nicholas Eberstadt, “Our Miserable 21st Century

“Depression Breadline,” 1991, by George Segal

Angst is “a feeling of anxiety, apprehension, or insecurity.” Many of us feel it acutely right now – and that’s new. Angst isn’t a temporary, individual thing anymore. Now we all feel it together – or at least most of us do – and it’s not at all temporary. Millions can remember feeling no other way.

There’s a general sense in much of the developed world that we’re headed for more difficult times. Deficits increase, unemployment rises, and the benefits of the future – or at least the future that is already here (to paraphrase William Gibson) – have been unevenly distributed throughout society. It is not just in voting patterns that you can recognize the sense of malaise. You can see it in the economic numbers and in a lot of the psychological/sociological research.

Angst manifests differently in different countries. Consider Japan:

Recent research by the Japanese government showed that about 30% of single women and 15% of single men aged between 20 and 29 admitted to having fallen in love with a meme or character in a game – higher than the 24% of those women and 11% of men who admitted to falling in love with a pop star or actor.

The development of the multimillion-pound virtual romance industry in Japan reflects the existence of a growing number of people who don’t have a real-life partner, said Yamada. There is even a slang term, “moe”, for those who fall in love with fictional computer characters, while dating sims allow users to adjust the mood and character of online partners and are aimed at women as much as men. A whole subculture, including hotel rooms where a guest can take their console partner for a romantic break, has been springing up in Japan over the past six or seven years. (The Guardian)

Is it any wonder that there is a dearth of babies in Japan? It’s hard to get pregnant when a computer avatar is your companion. Young British women are literally 20 times more likely to have a pregnancy out of wedlock than young Japanese women. The cultural oddity of moe partially explains that fact.

While researching this topic I came across literally scores of similarly disconcerting statistics. For instance, the difference between the income and employment status of young males who grew up in two-parent versus one-parent homes is staggering, especially when you realize how fast the number of single-parent homes – generally, though not always, led by the mother – is rising. Less than half of US children live in a traditional family setting, according to Pew Research.

This week we begin a series of letters exploring the new economic and sociological anxiety. I want to look at what causes it and think about what we can do to ease it. I don’t know how many letters this dive will take. I may break away for other topics and then come back to the topic of angst. The one thing I know, based on my own experiences with family, friends, and business associates and the feedback I get from readers, is that we have a big problem.

In his first inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In 1933 that wasn’t even close to true. They had plenty to fear: The US was already in the throes of a depression that would only get worse, and war clouds were forming across the Atlantic and Pacific.

Roosevelt didn’t have all the right answers, but he did one thing very well: He gave people hope. My generation heard from our parents, even decades later, how FDR helped pulled them through those hard times.

Of course, he had an important advantage today’s leaders lack: Television, talk radio, and the internet weren’t constantly reminding everyone how terrible things were. We didn’t know or care about the intimate details of our leader’s lives. Today, I am not sure even FDR himself could do what he did back then. Conditions are different now.

It is become increasingly clear to everyone that we are breaking ourselves up into tribes based on how we consume news. We consume our news from people who are generally ensconced in the same ideological bubble we are, which only reinforces our concerns and anxieties. If you think Donald Trump and Paul Ryan are taking us in the wrong direction, there are plenty of people who will agree with you and tell you so. If you think the people opposing them don’t understand and are distorting the truth, there are plenty of sources that will confirm your thinking. And both sides talk/shout over the other.

We have always had polarization among our news sources (even back in colonial times), but it has never been so ubiquitous before, or so extreme; and the news has never been so readily accessible, so that numerous “tribes” can live in the same physical neighborhood yet hear different versions and interpretations of the problems and directions in our country and the world. We no longer all listen to Walter Cronkite on the radio or TV or read the local newspaper for our news. There is no unifying national experience, just a disjointed series of intra- and intertribal interactions. (This is not just a US problem, but I’m going to be citing mostly US data.)