Don't Be Alarmed: How economics is driving anxiety and what to do about it

Trying to find an available therapist in London is a lot like being single. You check out a lot of profiles, you make dozens of connections, but it will be months before you see any action.

But why are these problem-solvers in such high demand when we should be, in the words of Voltaire, living in the best of all possible worlds?

Think about it. Sixty years ago, our parents were expected to pick a career at eighteen and stick with it. “Working from home” was a shortcut to getting fired, table football was not essential office equipment, freedom was the ability to choose which shade of navy tie to wear and if they woke up each Monday to a world that hadn’t been obliterated by nuclear war, then so much the better.

Today, theoretically, we live in a world of unlimited possibility, one where digital platforms provide an outlet for every conceivable talent, and reality shows do the same for every conceivable lack of talent. 

Whatever you want to be, however you want to dress, wherever you want to live, work, travel or sit in an artisanal coffee shop writing random bursts of words which Grammarly will miraculously turn into proper sentences, as if you really were a literate adult, you can do it.

There’s no waiting or unnecessary climbing of corporate ladders – if you’ve got an idea and you live in the Western Hemisphere, there’s never been a better age to bring it to life.

Contrast this with much of the developing world, where (so the narrative goes) poverty, a lack of academic opportunity and instability are formidable barriers to achievement. 

Yet the odd thing is that the supposed societal ‘advantages’ in the West don’t seem to be translating directly into greater happiness. As a snapshot, let’s consider two very different statistics:

  1. Anti-depressant use in the United Kingdom has doubled over the last decade. [1]
  2. The African Youth Survey 2020 shows that 65% of young Africans believe that the 21st century will be the African Century whilst 72% are confident about their financial future. [2]

On the one hand, we seem to be witnessing growing levels of anxiety in the West (better awareness and more effective diagnosis of mental health issues can surely account for some but not all of this increase) whilst regions which, at face value, are faced with greater challenges seem to be buoyantly optimistic. 

What is behind this? 

One possible answer is that, despite the immense theoretical opportunity open to them, when compared with previous generations, Westerners are struggling. Last year, various economists started analyzing data produced by the US Federal Reserve which shines a light on the relative share of wealth amassed by each generation. Whereas in their mid-30s, Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) held approximately 21% of America’s total net worth, Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) are approaching that same age and hovering at just 3%. 

So whilst people in developing nations are confident of reaching a far better quality of life than their parents, Westerners seem to be doing significantly worse.

However, might this be a good thing? 

For centuries, Western society has seen wealth as something which is cumulative. You earn money so that you can buy more stuff, and the more stuff you have the better life will be. This unchecked consumption has had an impact on our environment, through the depletion of resources and the creation of significant amounts of waste.

So if we’re all actually broke, let’s not keep trying to buy shit like it was 1955 (and feeling anxious or unhappy that we can’t), because that’s actually not a great system. 

Instead, let’s learn to see ‘wealth’ as a process of appreciation, placing more value in fewer things, rather than accumulation. It’s like putting the phrases ‘less is more, ‘quality over quantity’ and ‘money doesn’t buy you happiness’ into a blender and then drinking the resulting smoothie.

You don’t need to get carried away and start posting Instagram pictures of sunsets with phrases like ‘My life is my wealth’ or ‘love is the world’s international currency,’ because you’re not a twat. 

But there is a middle ground, a way of coming to terms with the fact that having less money might actually give us the freedom to create a system which doesn’t bleed the earth dry, and that in itself would be one less thing to worry about.