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How anxiety became a status symbol

We’ve come a long way from the “cultivated languor” of the days before World War One. Ben Whishaw and Matthew Goode in Brideshead Revisited (2008)

“The masters of the universe are not ok,” says James Marriott in The Times. Far from the “slick, cold-blooded übermenschen of popular myth”, top professionals are really “insecure overachievers” driven to succeed by “doubt, self-loathing and fear of failure”. Corporate bigwigs confess to “desolating anxieties” that can only be assuaged by the compulsive pursuit of validation at work. One former banker coolly notes that his profession is “well suited to someone who doesn’t have a good sense of self”. In Silicon Valley, doctors report an “epidemic of stress and anxiety” among top execs. Among the richest students in Seoul, “premature curvature of the spine” has doubled in a decade.

But this is just as much cultural as it is physical and psychological. What we are witnessing is the “performance of a class behaviour”: an unconscious signal of belonging to an elite for whom anxiety is as much a sign of status as the “affectation of louche unconcern” was for the establishment at the turn of the last century. That “cultivated languor” was doomed by World War One. Similarly, the “rapacious glamour” of 1980s finance did not survive the 2008 crash. But it would be naive to prefer our new establishment of insecure overachievers, which places too little value on creativity and imagination. Many of the failures of the 21st century are “failures of flair”: the decline of innovation, an “unprecedentedly small-minded and self-serving political class”. They are the sad result of being taught that “grinding cheerlessly” towards the next professional trophy is the sum total of the meaning of life.