Income Inequality, Anxiety and Facebook

by JenniferCobb on 03/13/2011

We have all heard the bad news.  Income inequality in the US has reached historic proportions.

♦   The top 10% of Americans now control 2/3rds of our national net worth

♦  Since 1983, 43% of the wealth created by the U.S. economy went to the wealthiest 1%

♦  The top 20% accrued 94% of the total new wealth created in the past 3 decades, leaving 6% to the bottom 80% of Americans

♦  Since 1983, 87% of the total real income growth accrued to the top 20% and 44%  of that went to the top 1%

We know in our guts this is not a good thing.  Concentrating wealth concentrates power in the hands of too few.  This cuts against the grain of democracy, weakening the political and social fabric and leading to potential unrest.  The recent recession, where a small handful of folks at the top of the finance industry were rewarded richly for their folly, offers the most recent and chilling chapter in this unfolding story.  The rich keep getting richer and the rest of us stumble along, fuming.

(See — Eleven charts that explain everything that’s wrong with America from Mother Jones by Dave Gilson and Carolyn Perot.)

For the past three decades, the economic growth engine of the American economy has been bestowing its riches unequally.  If one looks at the jobs data since 1990, one sees that most industries have been fairly flat.  The US economy has added the overwhelming majority of jobs in government and healthcare.  The one small pocket of high income growth has been in highly skilled jobs in finance, management of multinational enterprises, computer design, and consulting.  These jobs can be very well compensated, but there are relatively few of them and competition is stiff, furthering the income inequality gap.  As we seek to grow our way out of a very tough fiscal situation, there will be little political will to redress this balance in any significant way in the near term.

In The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue that income equality is more than just unfair.  It is linked to a host of social ills.  The most unequal societies suffer disproportionately on a number of key indicators.  The list includes level of trust, mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction), life expectancy and infant mortality, obesity, teenage births, homicides and imprisonment rates.  Wilkinson and Picket compared the richest 20% to the poorest 20% and the most unequal countries were Singapore, the US, Portugal and the UK, in that order.

Why is income inequality making life so much worse, across the board, in countries with greater income inequality?  The short answer is that the stresses of modern life are exacerbated in more unequal societies.  We are a social species and tend to compare ourselves to those around us to get a sense of who we are and how we are doing.  The authors argue that fully ¼ of Americans will suffer from mental health problems in their lifetime, primarily anxiety and depression.  These diseases are agnostic about the size of your bank account, hitting people across the class spectrum with equal strength.   And these mental states are linked quite closely to other stress-related diseases such as heart conditions, obesity and diabetes.

These trends have been building since the 1950s when US society became more mobile and we started to drift away from the small communities that gave our lives meaning.  “People’s sense of identity used to be embedded in the community to which they belonged, in people’s real knowledge of each other, but now it is cast adrift in the anonymity of mass society.  As a result, who we are, identity itself, is endlessly open to question.”  We responded to this new terrain by judging each other on our achievements and rewarding those who made the most money, assuming it was a well-deserved, individual achievement.  The meritocracy was ascendant and along with it the promise, and the fear, that social status was in one’s control.  Those who did best in this new milieu were either extraordinarily bright or extraordinarily arrogant.  The best were often both.  Community, modesty and humility were sacrificed at the altar of self –promotion, individual success and fame.  Social comparison based on performance became the norm and we became stressed and anxious.

In many ways, these issues boil down to what we value in our culture.  In more affluent societies, we place a high value “on acquiring money and possessions, looking good in the eyes of others and wanting to be famous.  These kinds of values place us at greater risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and personality disorder.”  While Wilkinson and Pickett have their critics, and some of them are quite vociferous, what they are arguing rings true.  We want to be rich and famous, and we still want to do the right thing.  We want to do well and then do good, in that order.  As Travie McCoy sings in his latest single, Billionaire, “I want to be on the cover of Forbes magazine, smiling next to Oprah and the Queen.”  Once he makes the big time?  He will give it away and adopt a bunch of kids, like Brad and Angelina.  Philanthropy is the new American dream.  Doing good requires first making a lot of money, being famous and then giving back.  Now that is status.

In contemporary society we have invented some novel and sophisticated ways of expressing status competition.  Social media is one potent example.  Is it merely a coincidence that updating what one is doing on Facebook is a “status update”?  Sherry Turkle, in her book Alone Together, explores the impact of technology on teens and finds that for many, the experience of keeping up with the demands of social media is exhausting and anxiety provoking.  How many “friends” one has, who they are, what you like and don’t like – all of these elements telegraph clues about who you are and if you are “cool” or not.  Turkle writes, “There is performance and self-presentation everywhere – in school, in your family, on a date.  But when young people describe days of composing and recomposing their digital personae, they accept the reality of this new social milieu, but also insist that online life presents a new kind of ‘craziness.’“  The pressure to perform, and the continual fear that one will somehow make a wrong choice that will be forever contained in the digital record, creates significant social anxiety.

For Wilkinson and Pickett, social and status anxiety is a driving factor in the ills produced by income inequality.  They write, “Greater inequality is likely to be accompanied by increased status competition and increased status anxiety.”   Facebook was designed with a certain set of values and goals that perfectly fit in a larger culture marked by the need to “look good in the eyes of others.”  It offers the ideal, disembodied platform for managing one’s brand and relationships.  It is no accident that Facebook has taken a world filled with increasing income inequality by storm.  Social media and income inequality form two elements of a self-reinforcing social structure where the haves get an increasingly bigger piece of the pie and the rest struggle to be heard, seen and valued.   As Wilkinson and Picket write, “Having come to the end of what higher material living standards can offer us, we are the first generation to have to find other ways of improving the real quality of life.”   Let’s hope we can find the social and political will to generate some creative solutions.

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