A time of anxiety

Recently The Daily Mail carried about what it describes as a ‘quarter life crisis’ for young women in this country.1  This was based on a report by the investment company Skandia, which revealed, amongst other things, that over 30%  of the women surveyed said they suffered from anxiety.   One of the reasons cited for this were the current economic uncertainties: many of these women are recent graduates who are currently facing an uncertain future in the jobs market.

Of course, the term ‘quarter life crisis’ is a play on ‘mid-life crisis’, which traditionally affected men in their forties and fifties.  Not that this age group faces any more of a certain future: they just missed the boat regarding final salary pensions, which they might have had if they had been ten or twenty years older; and it is often this older age group which are particularly vulnerable in times of economic recession.   And in fact, if we take a step back then perhaps the future is uncertain for everyone, whatever their age.   Does this mean, therefore, that we could talk about living in an age of uncertainty and, consequently,  that we now live in an age of anxiety?

None of this, of course, is much help to our anxious young women, who may indeed face a very uncertain future.  However, in order to gain a greater understanding of why they might be so anxious, perhaps we need to start by taking a closer look at the nature of anxiety itself.

Freud argued that anxiety appeared to lack an object: in other words it was never obvious what his anxious patients were actually worried about – if it had been he would have said they were afraid, but not anxious.   Does this offer us a clue about the nature of anxiety, and more specifically the nature of the anxiety of these young women?  At first sight it would seem that their anxiety does indeed have an object: economic uncertainty.  But aren’t we talking about a negative here, i.e. the lack of something (in this case economic certainty)?  So perhaps Freud was right: in the case of these young women it is not knowing what the future holds that gives rise to so much anxiety.

But what if Freud was wrong – or rather, what if we have misconstrued what he wrote about anxiety?  What, in fact, if anxiety is not without an object?  At the same though, what if this is not quite the kind of object we might normally imagine?  So, in the case of the anxious young women, perhaps it is true to say they are anxious because they do not know what the future holds for them, especially in terms of job and career prospects.  At the same time, though, perhaps it is equally as true to say that there is something about the nature of this not-knowing, this uncertainty, that is really disturbing them, rather than being uncertain about anything in particular.

In other words, it’s not so much that these young women are anxious because they fear they may never get a job, or the career that they dreamed of while at university.  Rather, they are anxious because something else is emerging in the void opened up by not knowing, in the gap created by uncertainty.

And this something else emerges at the very moment that the dreams, the aspirations, the fantasies that these young women may have had start to fail, are called into question – in this case because of the current economic climate.  The great thing about fantasises is that they keep anxiety at bay, because they construct stories of the future, the past, and of the present.  They provide a form of narrative, they help people make sense of world.  Once they start to break down, anxiety appears, and following in its wake is what could best be described as the other side of fantasy.

Anxiety in itself is not really the problem, however much it may seem like it at the time.  Rather, anxiety is the harbinger, the announcement, of something else – something else which, in fact, is already inscribed in our fantasies, if we care to look closely enough.

So, yes, perhaps our young women are anxious because they face an uncertain future.  However, this uncertainty stems from a breakdown of an imagined future, a fantasised future.  So maybe if we want to understand their anxiety we could start with these imagined, fantasised futures……

  1. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2173388/The-women-facing-quarter-life-crisis-Third-graduates-20s-gripped-anxiety.html []