This is an edited extract from Dr Tanveer Ahmed‘s essay Self-Reliance, Youth, and The Task of Character. This article was originally published in The Australian.
Snowflakes, easily triggered or unfairly maligned, the worsening mental health of young people became a sensitive topic during the pandemic lockdowns. In the battles over safety, children became a political football tossed about in debates about re-opening.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic did not cause these issues, but rather revealed and accelerated them.
Self-harm and anxiety disorders among adolescents have already been increasing across the Western world. Just as the pandemic was speeding up historical trends such as digitisation, the statistical rise in youth self-harm, eating disorders and substance abuse was already occurring.
The combination of smartphones and social media is often raised as a key factor, unique to upcoming generations.
The smartphone represents the apex of delivering information through the exploitation of our lizard brain, namely the co-opting of our biological vulnerabilities by consumer products. This feature is known as evolutionary mismatch, much like how our tastebuds evolved in a time of calorie scarcity.
The history of consumerism is a greater sophistication of co-opting our primitive psychology towards the usage of goods and services. Fatty food, internet pornography and illicit drugs all prosper from sparking the same neural pleasure pathways. Social media and technology take this to another level by exploiting our insecurities about status, connection and belonging in a hierarchy.
This puts a greater premium on skills previously known as character like a willingness to delay gratification, something which may have been a puritanical norm for our parents but is increasingly lacking for many of our children.
The most effective period for investments in both cognitive and non-cognitive skills are the early years. Nobel laureate and economist James Heckman argues it is when we are the most malleable, flexible and able to be imprinted by parents and culture.
Unfortunately, this is also the period where disruptions in bonding with caregivers or conflicted families leave long-term imprints, often exposed in adolescence when there are greater social and academic pressures.
They can be overcome with civic and institutional support, but require greater intention than we are currently providing.
The cushioning of vulnerable people that stable families and clans used to provide has largely been outsourced to the state. The modern family has suited higher socio-economic groups but ravaged the poor and disadvantaged. The class dimension of youth mental health is not clear cut, but those presenting are overwhelmingly more likely to have had a disrupted upbringing.
Children used to be useful but are now protected. Before they were teenagers they worked the fields, helped in mills or cared for their siblings. From the moment of birth, people were enmeshed in a complex web of obligations. Now the primary role of parents is to cultivate their children. As Jennifer Senior outlines in her book All Joy And No Fun, no longer are parents custodians of old traditions but are instead required to invent new ones.
Educational psychologist Donna Cross of the University of Western Australia argues that as other sites of community and character formation have declined, schools have acquired more pressures to rectify the fragmentation. Teachers become unofficial parents of children from broken families, especially in lower socio-economic areas. There is a greater therapeutic focus in schools.
Cross relates some of her travels overseas to study other educational systems. She discovered behavioural disturbance among children was more pronounced in Australia. It is likely that in countries like Singapore, their educational scores may reflect the fact Confucian systems cultivate character strengths such as self-control and perseverance more intentionally.
There is a marked growth in disability provisions for mental health reasons, something being used overwhelmingly by children in elite private schools. The provisions allow for extra time, rest breaks and in many cases additional marks as compensation.
In lower socio-economic groups, emotional disturbance may be expressed, especially among boys, through bad behaviour, whereas among the middle classes neuroses is more common. The greater medicalisation of middle-class distress, which adds greater legitimacy and even privileges through disability provisions, is widening the education and character divide.
This is a pointer that the potential decline in character traits is also growing among the wealthy, evidence that affluence can undercut discipline.
In a rich society, it can be harder to postpone immediate pleasures for the future. The striving for success in a highly competitive environment, one undergirded by ideas of meritocracy and achieved identities, is especially apparent in elite private and selective schools.
An especially important aspect in discussing youth mental health is the paucity in idioms of suffering. Young people have fewer myths to set context to adversity. This may also explain the huge popularity of Harry Potter, a set of stories that is now arguably competitive to the Bible as a sacred text for upcoming generations.
An aspect of psychologist Jordan Peterson’s success is his ability to articulately communicate Biblical stories and Jungian concepts such as universal archetypes. Jung teaches that meaning in life comes not just in “love and work”, as Freud said, but is made intelligible through recurring cultural patterns, namely myths.
We live in times of great prosperity but can lack purpose. There can be a sterility to modern life as we accumulate ever larger amounts of wealth. A sense of the sacred is largely snuffed out, as is the place of ritual which connects us to groups or spirituality. Traditional religions have become vestiges of the past. We are not sure how to revive ancient traditions for a modern polyglot world. The revival of Anzac Day, driven in large part by young people, is evidence of a yearning for such ritual and shared stories.
For the most part, people who feel useful to others and have at least a small number of close relationships remain on kilter, what might be described as having “projects and intimacy”.
Self-reliance implies a sufficiency that is now linked to both a stigmatised male archetype and a psychic impenetrability. It was American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson who coined the term almost two centuries ago. His writings form the cornerstone of an American brand of rugged individualism, reinventing oneself amid the frontier.
The concept has been picked up within positive psychology and has strong overlaps with resilience, being able to bounce back from adversity. The term resilience has become ubiquitous, used not just in psychology but in fields as disparate as fire rescue to engineering. It has also acquired political sensitivities, with critics pointing to its connotation of isolated individualism, a perceived devolving of responsibility for societal problems away from institutions and the state.
The ancient Greek and Roman republics identified a central political task being that of character formation. Classical economists like Adam Smith identified reason and what he called “self command” as the two qualities “most useful to ourselves” in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
Prudence, in particular, is essential for financial planning. We typically discount the value of a day in the distant future in comparison to the present.
A 2009 Pew study discovered children of low-income parents who were above-average savers had a 20 per cent higher chance of moving off the lowest rungs of the income ladder. The savings may help in paying for educational expenses, but the mere propensity to do so signals the ethic of prudence. If a child’s most obvious role models exhibit impulsive behaviours, it is much harder for a child to defer gratification.
It was Martin Seligman who said that “poverty is a state of present mindedness”. Overcoming the loss of self-reliance requires ending the dependency feedback loop of a society which encourages safetyism, gratification from the smartphone and the avoidance of all risk. This has the effect of creating psychological fragility and an inability to deal with the vagaries of life, which creates demand for even more protections.
The development of such skills, which may have once been called character, is arguably the central task of any civilised society. Heckman arguesend outcomes and economic distribution are too heavily prioritised in inequality debates, when pre-distribution to help level positive character traits should occur in parallel..
The challenges of technology are real. It may warrant a light touch regulation, but phones may merely be exposing the faultlines lying beneath.
British philosopher Avner Offer writes in The Challenge of Affluence that such technological novelty has never been cheaper and more available. But Offer warns that prosperity speeds the flow of this novelty and is occurring in parallel to the decline of what he calls commitment devices, the scaffolding that families and social stigma used to provide in moderating the ravages of such disruption.
In parallel there are a multiplicity of trends such as positivity, the medicalisation of emotional distress, the disruption of early attachments and the decline of mitigating institutions such as community that have rendered a generation more vulnerable.
There also appears to be some fundamental changes how upcoming generations communicate that affect qualities like empathy and the capacity to tolerate solitude.
The non-cognitive skills of character – particularly of persistence, prudence and the deferral of gratification – are being undermined. In combination with a lesser capacity to make sense of suffering and adversity, future generations are ill-equipped to cope with the avalanche of instant gratification vehicles that are now perpetually accessible.