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The Profound Stress of an Age of Collapse

The Profound Stress of an Age of Collapse

Every year, the American Psychological Association releases a "Stress in America" report. This year's is essential reading. If you watch the video post that accompanies this little read, I talk about why. Here, we're going to go into even more depth about...the dire findings.

See the chart above? Those are the main findings, to begin with, of the report. And they reveal a dire picture, of a nation in profound distress. Examine the chart for a moment. What pops out at you? 70% of people are stressed. That's the first major finding, almost hidden in plain sight. 70% of people in a society shouldn't be "significantly" stressed. That they are is in itself a crisis—when levels are this endemic, and this high, it tells us that an entire society is reaching the point of profound distress.

What are Americans stressed about? Everything, from the looks of things. But at the very top of their minds are worries about money, the future, and society. The economy comes in at number one, unsurprisingly, given how many stats we discuss about it—another number I highlighted recently was that 70% of Americans feel "financially traumatized," and that they're the same percentage is hardly a coincidence. Then there's the "future of the nation," which can be seen as a more diffuse stress about the future, period. Health is up there, too. And finally, concerns about society itself disintegrating and buckling.

Let me highlight the first conclusion. It's profoundly abnormal for a nation to be this stressed about...itself. About the most basic parts of life. The economy, the future, society. What's more elemental than that? This is just...normal...everyday stuff. Going to work, paying the bills, your kids having a better future, society not ripping itself to shreds. We should never, ever see people this stressed, to the point of distress...about the most basic aspects of just...existence. Let me put on my official economist slash Worlds Top 50 Thinkers hat and emphasize that point.

But that's life in America. It's not hard to see why America's having a Crisis of Distress. American life has fallen apart. Pundits don't like it when I say that, but what else do you call the status quo? 70% financially traumatized, a majority struggling to pay the bills, Trump rising all over again, this time, even more overtly fascist, distrust, hostility, and rage surging, the list goes on. All of those dots should be connected, though, and the portrait I'd draw is this.

Predatory capitalism is breaking the American mind. That's not a political point, emphatically—this isn't something I believe, or want to believe. It's an empirical fact, which is what these findings really reveal. You see, even a few decades ago, saying something like that might have been some kind of political "argument," as in, over beliefs. But now? We have facts, incredibly shocking and dismal ones.

Think about just how the stressors above are connected. It's not just "a list," really—but a pattern. America's the richest and most powerful country on the planet—only the vast majority of people are facing financial trauma and stress. It's gotten worse over generations, too, and we'll shortly come to the even more shocking stats about young people, which deserve an essay all their own. Why is that? Why is that no matter how much Americans make, short of being seriously rich, the stress never ends?

Precisely because the system's attuned to keep them right at the edge. Predatory capitalism's a system which just keeps jacking up prices, more and more astronomically every year. By now, everyone in the world knows the startling sorts of costs Americans face, but here's an example:

"Nearly half of American adults faced medical bill issues in last year"

The survey findings also show that nearly half of American adults (46%) faced a problem with a medical bill in the last year, and almost half with low or average incomes (46%) skipped or delayed needed care because of price – the highest rate in any of nine countries analyzed.

“In some cases, lower-income people in other countries are better off than higher-income Americans,” said Munira Gunja, lead author of the study and senior researcher at the Commonwealth Fund.


What happens to Americans is simple, chilling, and frightening. Incomes stagnate or fall in real terms, precisely because no matter how much "more" they nominally make, prices rise more than to offset it. And behind that is an incredibly complex and byzantine system—an actual one—dedicated to investigating just how much people can be pushed to the brink. Think again about medical bills in America: they're mostly just...made up.

What happens next? American life becomes a bitter, brutal Darwinian struggle. Think of how abuse works, because it's the simplest and clearest parallel. Americans are isolated, and made dependent on the very systems which immiserate them, as in, traumatize them and keep them at the edge. In their isolated bubbles, they're made to fight one another over again, for basic resources, money, shelter, food, income, wealth, savings, and the intangibles of a good life, which follow, too, stability, security, safety, autonomy.

And so it's hardly a surprise that Americans, over the years, have come to see one another with hostility, as hated enemies. It's an effect of predatory capitalism: when people are separated into endlessly warring rivals and adversaries, and kept at the brink of perpetual ruin, the threat of life and death dangled over their heads—remember howabuse works?—you don't see anyone else, really, as your friend. And so social norms have imploded. The report makes that clear, too, by the way.

"Stress in America 2023"

When it comes to stress management, many are struggling to cope and are bearing the burden alone. Around three in five adults (62%) said they don’t talk about their stress overall because they don’t want to burden others. Although finances are a top stressor, talking about them is off the table.

The data also shows a tendency among respondents to downplay stress; around two-thirds of adults (67%) reported feeling like their problems are not “bad enough” to be stressed about, because they know others have it worse. Other top reasons adults reported they or a family member may give for not seeking treatment included the belief that therapy doesn’t work (40%), lack of time (39%), or lack of insurance (37%).


Isolated. Divided. And then made to fight each other for the basics of life, perpetually, endlessly—even when there's plenty go go around, only it's hoarded at the very top. The Hunger Games wasn't too far off the mark, which is precisely why it had such resonance for Americans.

Who bears the brunt of all this? Increasingly, young people—and what the report reveals them is tragic, utterly shocking, and absolutely devastating. I want you to read the following slowly and carefully.

Gen Z adults and younger millennials are “completely overwhelmed” by stress
20- and 30-somethings in the United States are burdened by financial woes and isolation, APA’s 2023 Stress in America report finds

When “Hannah” graduated from college in 2019, her future looked bright: She’d landed an internship in media, moved to New York City, and joined a theater troupe where she quickly found community.

Now 26 and back in school for social work, Hannah doesn’t feel “young and carefree.” “Not knowing what your future is going to look like in a world where nobody knows what the collective future is going to look like is, to say the least, overwhelming,” said Hannah, whose name has been changed to protect her future job prospects.

But younger people report the deepest consequences of stress. In the survey, about two-thirds of 18- to 34-year-olds said stress makes it hard for them to focus (67%) and feel as though no one understands how stressed they are (66%). That age group was also most likely to say that most days, their stress is “completely overwhelming” (58%), that it renders them numb (50%), and that most days they are so stressed they can’t function.

Findings like this are a social calamity of the highest order. Young people are "completely overwhelmed"? "Numb" and "can't function"? That's shattering stuff, and if you think I overstate the case, let me explain why.

How a society cares for its young is its truest measure. Not just morally, though of course there's that. But in a more pragmatic sense. Young people are the ones who, in just a decade or two, will face the pressures of work, life, politics, as adults. They'll have to keep a society's basic institutions and systems going. Create the future, every day. Reproduce norms and values. But when they already can't function, as in, literally, a society's future is in grave doubt.

What does it tell us when young people are effectively traumatized at a social scale—which is what "being numb" and "not being able to function" really mean? It tells us that authoritarians and fascists and all the various forms of demagogues and implosive politics will have a field day. That a society's basic power structures are profoundly broken, and that it's now exploiting its young people to the point that they feel traumatized.

So why are America's young being exploited? To what end? We circle right back to predatory capitalism again. It's young people in America who know they'll never retire, have financial stability, will barely if ever be able to afford homes and families in secure ways. They look into the future and they see nothing but more pain. And worse, it's meaningless. It's not the pain, of say, a war, or a natural disaster, which bears some kind of meaning, at least. It's just the stupid, endless, pointless suffering of...being exploited...basically...as absurd as it sound...so that the super rich can get giga rich, and so K St and DC can look the other way. Is there any other reason?

Think about it. America's young aren't being exploited by anybody other than America's terrifyingly broken systems, and I use that word because these stats are so dire. They're the walking wounded at this point, but nobody much in the adult world seems to notice or care. That's because American adults have internalized the value of predatory capitalism. Remember how the report reveals that adults are isolated, and they don't talk to each other, even though they're all facing precisely the same stressors? And how that clearly signals a kind of rivalry and animosity and fear at work?

All that's the internalization of the values of predatory capitalism. What are those values? They go like this. I'm worthless, and so is everyone else. We mustn't talk or have anything in common, because we're rivals, and that's all we are in life. Because we're all just worthless rivals, our only purpose in existence is to fight it out over these basic resources, money, food, shelter, medicine, security, stability. My job is to find a way to exploit someone even more powerless than me, in this dog-eat-dog game. If I can't do that, then I'm weak, and the strong survive, and the weak perish.

Now. That all sounds pretty ugly, and it is, but that's not the point—I'm not making a moral judgment, I'm observing, sadly, and empathically. How does it feel to be that way? It feels...incredibly distressing. First of all, you're alone, second of all, you feel helpless, third, precisely because you're told not to be allowed to believe in the intrinsic worth of anyone, yourself, or your fellow human beings. The strong survive and the weak perish—how does it feel to have to live that way? Distressing. Again, not a moral judgment, but a human observation: it's profoundly stressful to have to think, be, exist, see the world, that way. Because again, think of abuse. Even if you're "strong," your essential humanity's been erased.

The profound stress of living in an age of collapse. America exemplifies it best, because it's example goes deepest. Sure, life is stressful, times are bad, and this decade is incredibly bleak. But America shows us just how far down the rabbit hole you can go. When a society's endemically distressed, by just the basic stuff of existing at all, when its young people are traumatized at a social scale, something's gone incredibly badly wrong. We should never see the vast majority of people distressed about the basic stuff of existence—money, the future, society—outside grindingly poor places, or times of profound dislocation. Or young people basically shutting down from trauma.

Worse, we should never see a society turning a blind eye to its own distress. And yet that's what's happened, and continues to happen, in America, and that's the truest giveaway that the values of predatory capitalism have been internalized. Sorry, kid, only the strong survive. The weak perish. I'd better not talk to anyone about how bad I feel, because that'd make me weak. Nobody deserves anything— not even friendship, support, encouragement, let alone care and concern. It's every man, woman, and child for themselves in this Purge-meets-Hunger Games of survival.

We should take a lesson from all this. This isn't just a jeremiad. It's a plea, I think. We should care for one another. If we don't, we end up like this. Deeply distressed, traumatized, all of us by the very same stressors, yet trapped in our little bubbles of isolation, antagonism, and self-absorption, turned against one another, all so that hyperconcentrations of wealth and power grow past Roman levels, for no reason at all, but vanity, hubris, greed, and folly. After all, remember what happened to that once shining empire, as its Caligulas smiled wickedly? To me, that's the lesson in all this, and it's as tragic as it is profound.

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