Trickle-Down Distress: How America's Broken Meritocracy Drives Our National Anxiety Epidemic


Anxiety is growing into a peculiarly American phenomenon. How did we become the world's leading exporter of worrywarts?


America is turning into a country of hand-wringers. Nearly one in five of us -- 40 million American adults -- suffer from anxiety disorders, the most common class of psychiatric ailment we have. By comparison, a mere one in ten are plagued with mood disorders like depression, the second most-common class of psychiatric problems. Panic attacks often besiege Daniel Smith, author of the new anxiety memoir Monkey Mind, out July 3, while others suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, persistent and excessive worrying about everyday things; social anxiety disorder; and a host of other fretful conditions.

So we're more anxious than anything else -- and also more anxious than anyone else, beating out all other nations in our race to the top of the nerve-racked list. According to a recent World Health Organization study, 31 percent of Americans are likely to suffer from an anxiety problem at some point during their lifetimes -- compared to 25.3 percent of those in Colombia, and 24.6 percent in New Zealand, the countries that rank second and third. You'd think people in developing or unstable states -- those preoccupied with concerns farther down on the Maslow Scale -- would be more anxious than we are. Not so. "According to the 2002 World Mental Health Survey, people in developing-world countries such as Nigeria are up to five times less likely to show clinically significant anxiety levels than Americans, despite having more basic life-necessities to worry about," writes Taylor Clark, author of Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool. "What's more, when these less-anxious developing-world citizens emigrate to the United States, they tend to get just as anxious as Americans.

"The United States has transformed into the planet's undisputed worry champion," Clark adds.

Things only seem to be getting worse, unfortunately. "Surveys show that stress levels here have progressively increased over the past four decades," says Paul J. Rosch, MD, Chairman of the Board of The American Institute of Stress. New research indicates that anxiety will continue to grow with modernity: Millennials and Generation Xers are more nervous than their elders and less capable of handling the pressure in their lives, much of which comes from worries related to money and work. The screws are tightening for our kids, too: A 2011 study from UCLA found that first-year college students are more tense than ever before. The pressure starts well before they graduate from high school, of course: "American teens, and perhaps even pre-teens now, with Ivy League-obsessed parents, experience sleep deprivation, lack of downtime, and stress due to round-the-clock efforts to create impressive resumes for college admissions," says Carrie Barron, M.D., a New York psychiatrist and co-author of The Creativity Cure: A Do-It Yourself Prescription for Happiness. "Too many hours slumping over screens and study tasks leads to depression and anxiety."

For adults, jobs are the leading source of stress, says Rosch, who points out that work-related anxiety has multiplied in recent years -- both for the unemployed and the employed. So many companies have down-sized and so many industries have shrunk that employees who manage to hold on to their jobs are expected to work longer hours; they have more and more to do, and less time to do it to their satisfaction.

But it's not just the recession -- which is affecting countries around the globe -- that's to blame for America's nervous temperament. Even if the economy were in great shape -- as it was in 2004, when we spent $2.1 billion on anti-anxiety meds, almost double the amount we spent in 1997 -- we'd still be chewing our nails. Here's why.

Reimagining American meritocracy

Despite the fact that most Americans believe our country is still The Land of Opportunity, the greatest meritocracy in the world, the United States is actually a terrible place for fortune-seekers. Chris Hayes, author of the new book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, notes that when citizens of different countries are polled about their perception of how easy it is to start off poor and work their way up to wealth, "the U.S. is near or at the top in terms of people who say 'yes.' And yet it is also near the bottom in terms of actual social mobility."

In other words, as Hayes argues in his book, America isn't truly a meritocracy. Sure, the Civil Rights movement, feminism, and equal opportunity laws have helped to remove many of the barriers to success -- but people at the top tend to stay at the top, from clique to clique, and generation after generation. "Those who climb up the ladder will always find a way to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up," Hayes writes.

The powerful are liable to game systems (like school admissions processes) designed to reward merit; they'll also go to great lengths to maintain their bank accounts and their positions (consider, for instance, just about everyone involved in creating the subprime mortgage crisis). And despite the fact that we are all supposedly born with the same legal rights, the elite are rarely punished for their misdeeds, particularly compared to those lower down on the socioeconomic chain. "The idea that we are a meritocracy is a vast oversimplification, a self-serving and self-justifying one," says Hayes. "If you believe that the model is that those who are smartest and hardest working end up with the most power or the most lucrative jobs, then ... one conclusion to draw from that [is] that the people currently occupying those positions must be meritorious, which I think is an insidious myth."

The game is rigged from birth

Sociologist Stephen McNamee makes some similar points in his 2004 book The Meritocracy Myth, though he emphasizes the circumstances we are born into as a determining factor in where we'll end up. "The race to get ahead is a relay race in which we inherit a starting point from our parents that in itself creates huge inequalities of opportunity unrelated to the merit of discrete individuals, including, and especially, unequal access to educational opportunity," McNamee explains. Being born to wealthy, powerful, or well-credentialed parents doesn't just help to ensure an individual will have elite educational experiences; his childhood and college experiences in turn ensure that he will make important social connections and fit in culturally, multiplying his chances for unusual success.

"The SAT was supposed to level the playing field so that the Ivies, for example, were not just the provenance of the elite," Barron notes. But the game has become rigged in favor of the wealthy, who can afford to pay for years of test prep and college application tutoring for their children. And yet, in a strict sense, meritocracy often fails for those privileged kids, too. Barron points out that many work extremely hard, and do all the "right" things, yet can't get into the college of their choice because they're not unusual enough.

The meritocratic pressure-cooker

The idea that we can accomplish anything we put our minds to is so pervasive that we often have a lot on our minds. We feel pressure to take on more responsibilities and to make the "right" choices -- and we beat ourselves up when we fail, as Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning for the State Department, wrote in this month's Atlantic cover story . "Millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot)," she wrote. And unsurprisingly, perhaps, women suffer from a number of anxiety disorders -- including generalized anxiety and panic attacks -- at a rate twice as high as that for men.

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Maura Kelly is the author of Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not-So-Great Gatsbys and Love in the Time of Internet Personals, a hybrid of advice column and literary criticism. Her op-eds, essays, and other writings have appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Daily, Slate, and Salon.

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