“I am so stressed!”
This statement has probably been repeated more than a multitude of times at a school, whether it be from a student thinking about upcoming exams, an athlete thinking about their performance in a game or a teacher scrambling to grade papers. The feeling of stress is an experience that all of us can relate to in school; in fact, the culture of stress has become ingrained in the education system itself. However, rather than receiving empathy, one person’s exclamation of stress is often met with: “Oh, you think you’re stressed? Here are all of the things I need to do.”
As a student who is personally experiencing this culture of stress in my college career, I have heard the same conversation above in one form or another many times; someone bemoans the amount of work they have to do, only for another person to “one-up” them by talking about the amount they have to do. There always seems to be a hierarchy or an attempt to outdo another person by, unintentionally or intentionally, belittling someone’s stress.
I admittedly find myself falling into the conversation from both sides. However, it is important to address this seemingly mild conversation since it goes beyond a lack of consideration — it is one of the consequences of neoliberalism seeping into our society.
To clarify, neoliberalism is an ideology in which privatization and competition stands at the center of different societal facets. The United States currently lives in a neoliberal, capitalist society where free market competition runs rampant. To put it simply, individualism and profit are at the forefront of this ideology over everything else, and thus, a Darwinist approach towards “success” is the norm.
It is no surprise that everyone is stressed at this time. But one of the insidious consequences of neoliberalism not only includes the rapidly increasing rate of stress in younger generations, but a dangerous form of normalization where students begin to use stress as a status symbol. The way in which students exert their dominance over one another not only becomes a temporary form of catharsis, but also perpetuates the toxic environment of neoliberalism in schools.
In schools, the exclamation of “I’m stressed!” can allude to many things: the difficulty level of classes you’re taking, the number of extracurricular programs or sports you are involved in and the type of worker you are. As a result, many people find themselves believing that the more stressed you feel, the more accomplished you are as a student. The up-and-coming generation, in particular, bears the brunt of the stress due to a growing emphasis on success.
For example, a College Board article reveals the amount of students taking AP classes has increased by 70 percent in the past decade. Additionally, along with those classes, nearly six out of 10 students participate in extracurricular activities. As a result, the growing workload and competition through neoliberalism leave little space for mistakes, thus increasing stress tenfold.
Students assert their superiority over others using stress levels as a strange way to cope with overwhelmed states of mind. However, this unusual coping mechanism creates a barrier between students; rather than supporting one another, students talk about their own concerns instead.
Julie Wilson, Allegheny professor of cultural media studies and author of the textbook “Neoliberalism,” suggests that this one-sided mindset results from “self-enclosed individualism,” an idea enforced by neoliberalism where an individual believes that “it’s me against the world.” As students grow up in a neoliberal society, they are pitted against one another to beat their opponents and succeed, which results in the belief that they are facing these challenges alone.
This harmful mindset results in a need for superiority over others, including through status. And for students, that badge of honor is stress. Students find themselves apathetic to the worries of others since they are too occupied with their own worries, an attitude that has been conditioned by neoliberalism.
That is not to say that stress itself must be eradicated.
In moderation, stress can provide a boost of motivation for people to complete tasks. However, the growing epidemic of anxiety and depression among teenagers stems from excessive stress, and the astronomical amount of work placed on young people should not be normalized and used as a symbol of status in schools. This harmful competition between students results in the festering of stress and self-enclosed individualism in schools.
People must understand the value of collaboration to dispel this stress and combat the true culprit in this battle: neoliberalism. By acknowledging our self-enclosed individualism and mindfully acting out of compassion and solidarity, we fight against the forces that try to separate us. Once people address the source of this stress competition, only then can we hope for better lives.