Neoliberalism Is Taking a Steep Toll on an Entire Generation's Mental Health
By Jacob Sugarman
January 25, 2018
Are you a millennial prone to self-criticism? Is your sense of worth inextricably bound to your professional standing and achievements? Do you suffer from acute social anxiety or are otherwise fearful of being judged by your peers?
The source of your unhappiness may not be chemical or emotional but a product of our economic system. According to a study from Psychological Bulletin, neoliberalism is producing generations of young people who are increasingly demanding, both of each other and themselves.
So what is neoliberalism, anyway? Despite what the pundit class might have you believe, it's more than a glib pejorative  for the policies of corporate Democrats and the GOP, although both parties have embraced a neoliberal model to varying degrees. Mike Konczal offers the following definition at Vox:
"'Neoliberalism' encompasses market supremacy—or the extension of markets or market-like logic to more and more spheres of life. This, in turn, has a significant influence on our subjectivity: how we view ourselves, our society, and our roles in it. One insight here is that markets don’t occur naturally but are instead constructed through law and practices, and those practices can be extended into realms well beyond traditional markets."
As Meagan Day points out in Jacobin, meritocracy and neoliberalism often go hand in hand. If the whole of society can be reduced to a series of market transactions, then individuals become commodities in direct competition with one another.
"Since the mid-1970s, neoliberal political-economic regimes have systematically replaced things like public ownership and collective bargaining with deregulation and privatization, promoting the individual over the group in the very fabric of society," Day notes. "Meanwhile, meritocracy—the idea that social and professional status are the direct outcomes of individual intelligence, virtue, and hard work—convinces isolated individuals that failure to ascend is a sign of inherent worthlessness."
Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill, the authors of the study, attribute these feelings of inadequacy to a rise in perfectionism across the culture. While perfectionism is generally understood as the rejection of anything that fails to meet one's own exacting standards, Curran and Hill assign the term distinct categories: self-oriented (holding unrealistic expectations of oneself), other-oriented (unrealistic expectations of others), and socially prescribed, the "most debilitating of the three dimensions." Day describes the latter as "the feeling of paranoia and anxiety engendered by the persistent—and not entirely unfounded—sensation that everyone is waiting for you to make a mistake so they can write you off forever."
For those born in the United Kingdom, Canada and the U.S. after 1989, Curran and Hill observe a marked rise in each category, but especially in socially prescribed perfectionism, which has become twice as prevalent as it was a generation ago. This can manifest itself in a variety of ways, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders and suicidal ideation, not to mention an increased dependence on social media.
"[Curran and Hill] cite data showing that young people today are less interested in engaging in group activities for fun, attending instead to individual endeavors that make them feel productive or fill them with a sense of achievement," Day continues. "When the world is demanding that you prove yourself worthy at every turn, and you can’t shake the suspicion that the respect of your peers is highly conditional, hanging out with friends can seem less compelling than staying in to meticulously curate your social media profiles."
Ironically, social media itself tends to produce feelings of anxiety and alienation. A wealth of research has linked an overreliance on Facebook to depression, so the pressures of neoliberalism and the stresses of social media appear to work in concert with one another, if they're not one and the same. (What are these sites, after all, if not platforms for personal branding?) Either way, the results are deeply troubling.
"Even young people without diagnosable mental illnesses tend to feel bad more often, since heightened other-oriented perfectionism creates a group climate of hostility, suspicion, and dismissiveness—in which the jury is always out on everyone, pending group appraisal—and socially prescribed perfectionism involves an acute recognition of that alienation," Meagan Day adds ruefully. "In short, the repercussions of rising perfectionism range from emotionally painful to literally deadly."
Until we can begin to imagine an alternative, the destructive cycle seems destined to repeat itself.