January 27, 2012 7:40 pm

Stressed? It’s the new normal

After five long years of financial turmoil, Americans might – just possibly – be getting used to shocks
illlustration of stressed man

Are you feeling stressed right now? As 2012 gets under way, plenty of people would probably say “yes.” But when the American Psychological Association recently posed this question, the results were distinctly surprising.

Although 22 per cent of Americans described themselves as “very stressed”, this figure was slightly down on the previous year, when it was 24 per cent – and well below 2007, when it was 32 per cent. Indeed, the measured levels of stress have been dropping steadily over the past five years since the APA started its survey. In 2007, for example, the mean stress level was 6.2 per cent, whereas this year it was “only” 5.2 per cent.

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Gillian Tett

At first glance, this looks odd. America has hardly seen a story of economic growth in the past five years. On the contrary, when the APA first conducted this survey (in summer 2007) the economy was in the midst of a boom. Even in the summer of 2008 a full-blown slump seemed unlikely, and the Lehman Brothers shock still lay ahead. And while there are signs that the US economy has now improved slightly compared with the severe downturn in 2009, this improvement has mostly occurred after the 2011 survey. Last autumn, US unemployment was well above 9 per cent – twice the level in the (most stressed) summer of 2007.

What is going on? One cynical explanation might be that the survey itself is flawed: the data run is short and the questions somewhat vague. But there is another, more intriguing, theory, voiced by some psychologists. After five long years of financial turmoil, Americans might – just possibly – be getting used to shocks. The type of instability and economic pain that used to spark stress, in other words, is losing its ability to unsettle people.

This theory might sound Pollyana-ish. But, there again, it might not be entirely crazy. Fifteen years ago I lived in Tokyo where many Japanese were initially thrown into a state of profound shock – and stress – when their once-solid banks started to collapse. It was even more devastating when the “job for life” culture crumbled: back then, unemployment was almost taboo.

But while that made the late 1990s a time of profound angst, what struck me when I returned to Tokyo after 2000 was how many of my Japanese friends seemed to be moving on. Whereas some had once wept into their noodles at the thought of losing their job, they were starting to accept the idea, and recognise that it was possible to survive. When banks collapsed and work vanished, they no longer assumed that the world would come to an end.

Something comparable might now be happening in America and Europe. Before 2007, economists sometimes used to say that the west had moved into an era of “great moderation”, in the sense that inflation was ultra low, growth relatively healthy and capitalism seemed benign. That sense of stability extended into many non-economic areas, too: after the collapse of the USSR, it seemed that western capitalism had triumphed and trust in most western institutions was pretty high.

But this impression – or illusion – of “moderation” has now been shattered, in a way that has not only caused economic pain and market volatility, but undercut trust, too. A fascinating survey by Edelman, the public relations group, shows that while 65 per cent of Americans trusted their banks in 2007, just 35 per cent do so now, and their trust in government and business has also crumbled. Indeed, the only sector that still commands high trust post-2007 is technology: many respondents now prefer to get guidance from their peers via social media rather than place faith in “experts” such as politicians or business leaders.

. . .

But, while this new mood of cynicism has some debilitating consequences, it also has an advantage: when people have already lost their innocence – or faith – they are less prone to being shocked. Five years of watching “black swan” type events, bad government policies and bizarre economic twists might have made shocks less unsettling. People are slowly adapting to a more unstable world.

For the generation now entering the working world for the first time, such instability and pain might almost be the new normal. Earlier this week, for example, I met students from America, Europe and Asia at a London School of Economics conference, who told me that they didn’t describe themselves as “Generation X, Y or Z”; instead, they prefer “Generation Flux”, or “Gen Flux”. “We are embracing change and flux, even to rejoice in it,” one of their leaders earnestly explained.

Of course, these pampered kids are hardly average: they have privileges that most young people lack. But embracing “Gen Flux” might yet be a good mantra for us all, even – or especially – for people (like me) who spent most of their careers living in a world that was supposed to be “moderate”, but may have actually been quite stressful.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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