Control anxiety

Maybe the time has come to try and understand social anxieties. Maybe it’s even urgent.

We have recently worked twice on groups in society with social anxieties and the issues that are affecting their lives.

Because of the tools they have to hand, governments mainly look at social anxiety through the lens of statistics. Of course, the objective level of unemployment, or available income per segment of the population do have an impact on the way people feel about their lives. But there is more to it than national statistics.

To use an example that has been often mentioned in social conversation, a private driver working for an on-line limo service may well be earning the same salary as the one he had before, with the factory job he’s lost. But does he feel the same? Does he feel he knows and understands the business goals or the work stream requirements in his new job, as well as he did in his factory? Does he feel protected, and able to plan his future and his children’s future as well as he felt he could when he was a line operator? Does he get the support of a community of colleagues and peers, and the camaraderie he enjoyed before? Does he experience the pride he had when the finished product was leaving the assembly line and was loaded on trucks which reach the whole nation?

Most importantly, does he feel he has control over his life?

This is the crucial element we found over and over again through ethnographies, working with so-called “fragile” parts of the population (oh boy, they don’t want to be called fragile!!!).  There is a glass ceiling in our societies between people who can change the circumstances of their lives, and those who cannot.

Some understand technology. They actually make the choice to take on technology to enhance and improve their life. Others, on the other hand, feel technology is imposed on them. Technology has changed the way they live and work, without them choosing. In some cases, they are the silent witnesses to technology threatening their lives. Do we know how it feels to be a driver, and learn about the development of driver-less vehicles?

Some choose the place where they live, based on the opportunities they find. They are mobile, they speak foreign languages and they can travel, relocate, and move. They can choose to live in a different country if desired. But others, who might want to be more mobile but do not have the tools, can feel “stuck” in their geography, faced with not only the costs of relocation, but limited access to opportunities outside the immediate radius of their lives. In some sectors, mining or energy, workers can find positions outside their local market, but the location of these jobs, in mining cities or oil extraction facilities, are not suited for family re-location, and they often resolve to live separated from their loved ones. Then there are those who do not enjoy the “opportunity” of mobility, who do not feel they can function in another town (let alone a foreign country) without their social support group.  For some groups, relocation simply feels impossible: small family businesses owners, artisans, farmers… Some choose their job according to a desired career path. They can resign when they find a more appealing opportunity outside their employer’s company. For others, it’s the opposite. We have spoken to people that had never resigned in their lives, and for whom the notion of work versatility was an alien concept.

Some consider medical advancements as a promised land.  They look to future opportunities with excitement: tomorrow, life expectancy will increase, people will live longer and better, trans-humanity will augment humanity, cloning and robotics will help us better ourselves. Meanwhile, they spend a significant portion of their available income to eat better, buy organic, try the latest craze, consume food supplements, workout at Soul-Cycle classes. By contrast, others struggle to get health insurance, and even when they have it, feel hostage to the local public facility and what it has to offer, and dread falling sick, and having to experience appalling delays, staff shortages and crowded hospitals.

Some choose the education they give to their kids, so that they can acquire tools and skills they can use throughout their lives; they can afford to push their children to commit to long studies. The longer one studies, the more they access a wealth of possibilities. More than one specific skill, they have been trained to acquire knowledge and skills by themselves. In other words, the longer they study, the more adaptable they get. In stark contrast, others are pushed in the direction of early specialization, acquiring know-how, rather than knowledge. Specialized workers are left with no alternative but to hope their specialization will remain sustainably in demand in society.

Of course there is a component of economic power at stake in the feeling of control we have over our own lives. But it is not just that. The feeling of control is also a result of the choices one has.

The current and manifest anxiety in our societies is the result of a feeling, among some, of a loss of control over their lives. Beyond political partisanship, and beyond policies, this anxiety needs to be understood, listened to, and addressed. It seems to us the tension will release only if governments, companies, institutions, NGOs, grass-roots and social movements agree on the goal of giving back some control to people who feel they have lost it. Not so much more control over government, which they don’t ask for, but rather, more control over their lives, which they desperately need. And we believe this can only be achieved by giving them more positive choices.

Education is probably the key area, and not just children’s education, but adult education too. Throughout life, knowledge is of pivotal importance: knowledge is what allows people to understand and control technology. Knowledge is what allows people to make better decisions, (including being empowered to distinguish between truth and fake news!). Knowledge is paramount to improving our quality of life, and health, by making more informed personal choices. Knowledge is what enables people to adapt to change, choose another career, another path, or choose a job where they can realize their potential.

Education has to become people’s most valued capital.  It is a capital we should aim at increasing all our lives. Societies, technologies, social practices, political choices, work practices, even consumption, all of these things are becoming more complex, and that’s exciting and promising. But, crucially, society must do a better job at equipping individuals with a better grasp of this complex and changing world. This is today’s challenge for tomorrow.

Christophe Abensour