Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Generation Depression

I'm beginning to wonder if my entire generation might not be fundamentally, existentially depressed.

It expresses itself quite often as anger and detachment. I know I myself experience those feelings far too much of the time. From behavioral problems in school to employment issues to a now nose-diving economy - the result of materialistic young professionals living beyond their means, not improbably in a futile search for fulfillment through property - it seems like the entire post-Boomer population of the United States is lost and disgruntled. For myself, I see it not only in me but in more and more of my friends and acquaintances; they'll overreact to slights and mistakes, real or imagined, or they'll simply lose interest in living their lives. It's becoming such a common experience that I'm starting to wonder if perhaps it's not just a growing frequency of depression and dissatisfaction among the introverts with whom I tend to associate, but a genuine societal psychiatric disorder.

As a hypothesis, it's not unreasonable. Much of my generation certainly suffers from a strong sense of sociopolitical impotence and a not entirely unjustified feeling that the government and the majority of business and community leaders don't give a single goddamn about us. Many of us cast our first vote in an election in which misinformation and media irresponsibility made it impossible to tell exactly what we were voting for, and then watched on live TV as our sincere efforts to carry out our "civic duty" were annulled completely by dirty tricks and Floridian incompetence. For many of us, it was just the latest and greatest indignity in a lifetime of being overshadowed, ignored, and dominated by the incredibly egocentric Baby Boomers and their smugly self-(en)titled "Greatest Generation" parents. For a great many of my generation, the encouragement of genuinely loving and well-meaning but piteously self-absorbed parents took the form of pressure to perform and ridiculously inflated expectations designed to "boost self-esteem." This created, in many cases, young men and women who felt like pathetic failures because they were ordinary people instead of the Presidents, astronauts, battlefield doctors, theoretical physicists, and millionaire investment bankers they'd been led to believe they would naturally become.

I don't mean to press for censure of our predecessor generations. They were who they were. I don't say all of this to blame them for my own dissatisfaction or suggest that my peers and I are not responsible for sorting out our own lives. What I am attempting to do is to paint a picture of the unintentionally repressive climate in which we were raised in order to make a case for the recognition and ideally amelioration of a very widespread and pernicious syndrome.

The National Institute of Mental Health, a branch of the NIH, shows depression rates at almost 10% in the United States. A more striking but perhaps misleadingly vague figure is the rate of increase in depression in young people - a remarkable 23%. Most tellingly, I think, well over half of those surveyed believe that depression is a personal weakness.

That's most telling because that attitude is both symptomatic of and causative of deep depression. Dissatisfied and mildly depressed individuals who believe that their unhappiness is their own fault are far more likely to sink into a deeper funk and potentially into major depression. It would be far too simplistic to blame the "Greatest" generation's bluff, insensitive insistence on self-reliance for this pernicious attitude, since the American propensity for self-reliance goes much further back; nevertheless, my generation's parents in particular were told altogether too frequently what was wrong with them and how they ought to fix it their damn selves, and it seems that some of it was passed right on down to us.

Depression is a very complicated issue. There's a lot more to it than being ignored parentally or politically, of course. For some sufferers, it really is a neurochemical disorder, although trying to figure out whether a mood disorder is caused by external events which create self-sustaining chemical changes or whether the chemical changes dictate destructive and self-sustaining behaviors in response to external stimuli is rather like arguing about a proverbial avian and ovum. For many, medications can help to shake them out of a bad episode, although these medications are certainly not without their side-effects, some of which will almost certainly become known only in the long term.

I am coming to believe, however, that a societal remedy is needed, not just quick fixes for broken individuals. It's not unreasonable to look back into recent history and see major events that gave previous generations their places in the world: the Depression, the World Wars, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, the Cold War - positive and negative events, some of which happened to the generations shaped by them and some of which were done by them. One does not have to dig deep, however, to see that in each of these cases the really formative events were the ones, whether by initiative or in response, which were actively performed in a constructive manner by young people - the works initiatives of the New Deal or the Eisenhower era; the American war effort; the protests and massive societal shifts of the 1960s. These things united each generation, if not in purpose or opinion, then at least temporally. They gained focus, even if they focused from entirely different directions at times.

It may seem a bit ghoulish to say that it's unfortunate that the generations of the 20th century are living much longer than their predecessors, but for me and my peers, it is unfortunate. It's unfortunate because those older generations are staying active longer and growing ever more self-righteous, refusing to move over enough to share fair and equal space in society with a younger generation that's feeling ever more cramped, oppressed, and dissatisfied. We are, frankly, voiceless and bored. We don't have the will or strength to forcibly supplant our elders because we're still young, still figuring out exactly how the world is run, still far too fractious in our views, still idealistic enough to back any of a hundred thousand causes instead of just one out of two.

Our time may be coming. The crisis of climate change and the necessity of converting to a world that's not only climatologically sustainable but economically sustainable in a post-fossil-fuel world may galvanize us and become our generation's New Deal or Civil Rights. It's hard to say. I think an awful lot hangs in the balance right now, in the current election cycle; there are forces - primarily Hillary Clinton and, well, everyone among the Republicans - who want to drag us, consequences be damned, back into what they perceive as the better world of the 1990s - back into the century in which they were born and raised and out of this brave new world that they simply don't quite fit into. I don't want to turn this into a smarmy endorsement of Barack Obama, but he is the only post-Boomer on the field, and he is the only one that I see as capable of taking us forward instead of back, more because of how his campaign is structured and what he represents than because of anything actually intrinsic in him.

Obama's election, if we're lucky enough to see it happen, may well shake us up enough to cure the social depression that's afflicting us. I don't know. Personally, I think it's a good first step, but certainly not an adequate cure. There are elements missing, primarily those which would allow large numbers of people to actually get hands-on with elements of the new society we could create. My suggestion, then? Off the cuff, I'd say we're damned well overdue for a vast program of infrastructure renewal and New Economy (e.g. Green) retrofitting of existing infrastructure and industry. Not only would it potentially cure this social malaise, its other benefits would be legion; by repairing our infrastructure, we'd improve efficiency and safety greatly; by such a large expenditure of labor and capital, we'd give an enormous boost to our economy; by taking real, meaningful steps toward a Green economy, we'd restore our standing in the world community substantially; by giving people meaningful, productive work, we'd provide purpose and fulfillment to a lot of Americans, and maybe give a lot of them a hand up out of poverty as well.

Of course, political action alone won't change culture, at least not overnight. It may be a bit too late to alter some of the fundamental aspects of personality that have been ingrained into the newest generation of engaged adults, or it may not. Time will tell. For now, there remain the traditional remedies of medication, escapism, and denial; or, just perhaps, if we seek hard enough, maybe we'll find fulfillment and meaning even in a world where those commodities simply aren't for sale.


George said...

Depression as a generatonal malaise? Interesting. I'm one of those smug bastards who resists any diagnosis as a come-on from the pharmacuetical industry, but you might be onto something there.

There's a reason that the Goth and Emo movements flourished, and I see a link between increased education and decreased opportunity. We're the boomerang generation for a reason - home prices ran through the ceiling while real wages stagnated. Men today make only about 70% of what they did in our parent's time (and women don't make 130% of what our mom's made). Plus, it doesn't help that our role models got where they are by charging everything on plastic and running up massive national debt.

I'm a cornucopianist and a tree-hugger, so I agree that technology is one of the best ways we can rejuvenate the system. But, I don't think technology alone is going to solve all of our problems. What we need is a massive swing towards delayed gratification. With the subprime meltdown, devalued dollar, and no-talent celebretards crowding the airwaves, I think our culture is heading towards critical mass for backlash.

Dr.Michael said...

Recent studies have attested to the fact that depression has a number of genetical factors attached to it. Depression does come to the next generations if the members of the previous generation have had instances of depression. Especially bipolar depression has been proven to come down to the next generations in case the previous generations had it.

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