Is It About Unemployment?

A recent survey revealed unprecedented levels of stress among college students in the US.  Many commentators leaped to the conclusion that this reflected the uncertain job market.  But do high levels of unemployment actually cause stress in students?

Taylor Clark commented on Slate that he finds that explanation implausible.  Increases in stress levels is part of a long-term trend in the U.S.:  “Over the last several decades, both through good economic times and bad, the United States has transformed into the planet’s undisputed worry champion.”  According to his figures, 18% of the population suffers from anxiety disorders, while sales of anti-anxiety medications like Valium and Xanax are at record levels – and rising.

Author of Nerve, a new book on stress, Clark offered three different reasons that struck him as more plausible to account for the rise in stress:  America’s increasing loss of community (what he calls the Bowling Alone syndrome); the overload of information we are subject to;  and “our intolerant attitude toward negative feelings.”  (See, “It’s Not the Job Market.”)

I am sure that the state of our economy has to be among the contributing factors. Nothing adds to anxiety like uncertainty about paying our bills. But I think Clark has a point:  being alone makes it worse.  The popularity of social media and the superficial connections among us it has promoted adds to our stress, especially in an age when we have come to think that the internet is bringing us all closer together.

In a way, social media exacerbate Clark’s three points.  Having many “friends” on Facebook can easily bring home to us how few friends we have on whom we can actually rely in times of stress.  Which of all those “friends,” for example, will lend us money to tide us over a tight spot?  The flood of information we have can bring home to us how little we know about anyone that really matters.  And the internet encourages us to switch off a link as soon as we get anxious or uncomfortable with it.  That, in turn, forces to confront how isolated we are.

Sherry Turkel’s new book, Alone Together offers us a good look at how social media, offering us the promise of greater connection, actually ends up making us more alone.  Facebook “friends” only know the most superficial things about each other, while “tweets” by definition cut off communication before people can get around to saying anything that matters.  Email too often is denuded of emotional content, or implies feelings that are not really there.

Turkel writes:  “We are lonely but fearful of intimacy.”  That’s it in a nutshell!  The superficial and transient links of social media do not really allow us to get to know each other.  Real intimacy requires more connection, more effort, more trial and error — and the real risk of disappointment.

Are we willing to hang in there and find out what will happen?