Editor's Note: We are counting down our top 10 blog posts of this year. The following article, originally published on February 18, 2020, is our 10th most popular blog post of 2020.
Megan, 19, wants to stand out and be “the person,” but she perceives herself to be falling short. The problem began in high school. She attended an elite academy, where she began “to feel like I was mediocre or below average.” Earlier, at a regular school, she “was the smartest person in the class” and had been on the gifted and talented track since the fifth grade. This heady recognition made her feel special. But then came the academy, where she was surrounded by very bright, high-achieving kids. She began to “feel marginalized” and yearned to “feel special again.” These feelings carried over into college.
Although she is now a scholarship student at a first-rate university, Megan is frustrated and despairing of herself. She explains that she is attending her “safety school” and wants to “show that I should be somewhere better by acing all my classes and being president of 40 organizations.” But, she adds, “that is really not happening. I am, if anything, a mediocre student … and that just makes me so angry at the world and then me for not being the person.” Although she wants “to impress someone,” she says, “I end up being impressively unimpressive,” and that “crushes me.”
Megan is one of the many young people that I, along with the help of my students, have interviewed over the past decade. Stories like hers are not unique. The distress of America's young people continues to attract attention from the media and experts.1 Anxiety in teens is on the rise and constitutes the leading mental health issue among American youth. Frequently-cited surveys show that the number of adolescents diagnosed with an anxiety disorder is growing, more and more high school seniors are reporting feeling overwhelmed, and the past-month prevalence of college students feeling “overwhelming anxiety” surpasses 40 percent.2
What’s going on? Psychologists, who provide most of the commentary, put their finger on a number of social phenomena contributing to all the distress. The causes they mention include the active shooter drills and preoccupations with safety now common in schools, the constant and insidious comparisons kids make to each other on social media, the high stakes testing and college admissions process, and the “over-parented, over-trophied” ways in which so many children are raised. And the solutions they offer for high anxiety typically center on medical interventions, such as behavioral therapy or medication in the more severe cases and, generally, on the teaching of life skills that promote resilience, mindfulness, wellness, and the like. Young people, they tell us, are either too sheltered or not sheltered enough and are therefore prone to distorted “habits of thought” in the face of challenges and disappointment, and so they need to learn to think critically and put things in their proper perspective.3
These observations and recommendations certainly have merit. But I want to suggest that they do not go deep enough. They miss something fundamental about how childhood itself has been reconfigured and therefore what may be the greatest sources of unease.
In my experience of listening to young people talk about the pressures of their social worlds, what stands out is the way in which they are required to conceive of their lives. Much of what once constituted a way of life that was imparted to children—involving traditions and communal purpose, rites of passage and stable institutional reference points—has disappeared. Now, youth like Megan must define themselves and the shape of their lives—who they want to be and become—by primarily referencing their own preferences, desires, and choices. They are urged to project a future and treat themselves and the social world as though every constraint and limitation is essentially malleable. Obstacles are “variables” that can be moderated or eliminated by their hard work and creative efforts. And they are virtually compelled to represent this biographical project, this “story you choose to live in,” as one young man put it, to others—from peers to college admissions officers—in a way that demonstrates and confirms its upward progress and realization.
For young people, especially, enacting their life in terms of choice carries many risks. It creates a powerful and relentless type of ethical responsibility for their own well-being. They become their choices, so to speak, in the sense that their choices are taken—by themselves and by others—as the realization of their personal attributes, values, and priorities, as reflecting back upon them as the sort of person they are, and as demanding justification with reasons, motives, and aspirations. In the face of failure, confusion, or disapproval, decisions cannot be attributed to social obligations, institutional norms, or role requirements.
And, as young people are only too aware, this self-making project is not made in a vacuum. It is made in a context of status competition and constant comparison and in light of often unforgiving ideals and normative expectations. Among these expectations, the duty to stand out and to attain their distinctive potential are particularly fraught.
A high school senior I interviewed told me that the measure of success is to be able to walk into the cafeteria and have everyone know who you are: “Not that you know them, but they all know you.” The ideal is to distinguish yourself from others, to forge a life that others will take notice of and even envy. Failing to do so can bring shame and humiliation.
Indeed, some young people fear a precipitous loss of status. Like Megan, another college student I spoke to was distressed because she was insufficiently demonstrating the special qualities she was presumed to possess. This failure to “be somebody,” she told me, shows that she is—in herself—a “loser,” a lesser type of person that young people often contrast with that higher form, the “winner.”
Similarly, it is each person’s duty, as many kids report, to “live up to their potential.” The specific direction is theirs to determine by their own autonomous choices, but the injunction carries unmistakable expectations. One father from California that we interviewed reported that his teenage son, who hopes to attend USC, asked him, “Would you be disappointed if I didn’t go to college?” He responded, “I would be a little bit hurt,” and then offered this further hypothetical response, “but if you tell me, ‘Dad, I want to be a plumber,’ then you know what I’d tell you? You be the best plumber out there. You tell me, ‘Dad, I want to be a mechanic,’ then you be the best mechanic.” Anything less than best, apparently, will be counted a failure, a failure to reach an aptitude that his son both can and should reach.
I am not questioning the good intentions of parents. As one student, Sarah, explained of her parents’ expectations, “They just hope for better for you and for you to be all you can be.” Surely, that’s right. But the message may be mixed. Potential is a language of possibilities, of as yet unrealized and untapped abilities. It implies the overcoming of limitations and, whatever one’s achievements, a continuous demand for more. There is no blood test to determine if you are being “all you can be.” The only way to know, as Sarah herself intimated, is to prove to others and yourself that you can be a lot.
Surveys of young people, in fact, document the “soaring” and “absurdly ambitious” educational and occupational expectations they often have for themselves.4 In a 2019 survey, 3,000 American adolescents, most aged 14-17, were asked about their aspirations for adulthood. How important, for instance, was it to them to become “powerful and influential” as an adult? Tellingly, 21% indicated “absolutely essential,” and another 27% as “very important.” Less than a quarter ranked it as not very important.5
As has long been recognized, the inability to realize important goals produces high rates of distress. Being “impressive” and being the “best” at whatever one does are two such goals. They are not the only ones, and the list could go on to include other attributes and markers of a good self, from being smart and outgoing to being fit and athletic. Flipped around, the list is a chronicle of the ever-expanding ways to fall short, disappoint, and be inadequate. Almost inevitably, young people find themselves struggling to measure up.
While no account is complete, we cannot appreciate the anxiety, sense of burden, and feelings of unfairness that young people express—actively or in dropping out—without recognizing how leaving kids to their supposed autonomy helps produce these problems.
Joseph E. Davis is a Research Professor of Sociology and Moderator of the Picturing the Human colloquy of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. His new book, Chemically Imbalanced: Everyday Suffering, Medication, and our Troubled Quest for Self-Mastery, will be published by the University of Chicago Press in February.
1. See, for example, Benoit Denizet-Lewis, “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” New York Times Magazine, 10/11/17; and Amy Ellis Nutt, “Why Kids and Teens May Face Far more Anxiety these Days,” The Washington Post, 5/8/18.
2. Rebecca H. Bitsko, “Epidemiology and Impact of Health Care Provider-Diagnosed Anxiety and Depression Among US Children.” Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics39, no. 5 (2018): 395-403. Ellen Barba Stolzenberg, et al. The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2018. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, 2019. American College Health Association. “ACHA-NCHA Assessment II: Undergraduate Student Executive Summary Spring 2019.” Silver Spring, MD: ACHA, 2019.
3. See, for example, Jelena Kecmanovic, “Excessive Worrying? A Psychologist Sees a Spike in Anxiety and Offers Tips” Washington Post, 11/4/19. Hara Estroff Marano, “Crisis U,” Psychology Today (September 2015); Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” The Atlantic, September 2015.
4. For example, Chardie L. Baird, Stephanie W. Burge, and John R. Reynolds, “Absurdly Ambitious? Teenagers’ Expectations for the Future and the Realities of Social Structure,” Sociology Compass 2, no. 3 (2008): 944–62.
5. National Survey of Moral Formation, designed by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and fielded by the Gallup Organization. (Charlottesville, VA: IASC, 2019).