This isn’t the future we were promised – Part III: The game’s losers

By Santiago Hunt



A brief recap: In Part I, I explained how the world’s economy is slowing down, and how demographic trends will make it increasingly harder for it to re-accelerate. In Part II, I tried to highlight how some of society’s key institutions (government, education and health) continue to expand as if growth weren’t slowing down. This is causing cracks in the system, which are becoming more apparent.


The game’s losers

Time for another disclaimer: I don’t intend for this next section (nor this 3 part series as a whole) to be read as yet another “The world is getting worse” hit piece. There’s TONS of evidence on how the world is improving, such as poverty reduction, health gains, access to technology, less wars, suicides going down…the list goes on. But I do intend to call out the pervasive “This isn’t the future I was promised” feeling. And how this is connected with increasing degrees of anxiety and stress in society.

Are anxiety and stress rising?

The short answer is that it’s really hard to measure these things, because we haven’t done it properly in the past. But there are signs that point to yes.

The clinical definition of GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) has evolved with time. What is interesting about GAD is that, the higher the income of a country, the higher its prevalence. Which makes sense, because more income means more possibilities for diagnosis. In higher income countries, at least 5% of population will be diagnosed with GAD during their lifetime (a number that is rising).

It’s important to note that one can suffer feelings of anxiety without being diagnosed with GAD. The APA (American Psychiatry Association) has run an annual poll since 2017 where 2/3s of Americans say they are at least somewhat anxious. Another figure on the rise. Furthermore, Millenials are the most anxious generation, and Blacks and Hispanics have higher levels of anxiety than White people.

Another study by Jean M. Twenge states that “…Americans reported substantially higher levels of depressive symptoms…in the 2000s–2010s compared to the 1980s–1990s”. In the UK, the Council of Psychotherapy has published research that states that “workers reporting anxiety and depression have risen by nearly a third in the last 4 years.”

While more work is needed to properly standardize measurement and diagnosis, one thing is for sure – when asked if they’re anxious/experiencing anxiety symptoms, more people are saying yes than in the past.

When it comes to stress, this is even harder to measure than anxiety. Gallup has run what is probably the most comprehensive study around “negative emotions” globally for the past 15 years. It hit a record high for negative emotions worldwide in 2018.

Source: Gallup (Worldwide)

To be fair (and optimistic!) the scores of the positive index are much higher (over 2:1 ratio). But the trend seen in the last decade is concerning. Consider the US for example, where the degree of stress and worry are particularly problematic.

Source: Gallup (USA)

The dream is broken, and we haven’t dreamt a new dream

Meritocracy. Sow and you shall reap. 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. The early bird catches the worm. The American dream. Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. All of these are facets of the same crystal: The widespread belief that effort and hard work pays off.

These narratives have been the backbone of the zeitgeist that led to the rise of the middle class across the 20th century. But in the 21st century, these narratives start to seem broken. While social mobility is still improving at a global level, it is mainly driven by Asian countries. Particularly China, India and SEA. In other parts of the world social mobility has halted or even worsened. And even in places where there is a positive trend, it will be uphill from here onwards. When seen this way, it makes sense people are anxious and angry. Consider this:

69% of people in the US have less than $1000 in liquid savings.

55% of Brazilians have no savings whatsoever.

40% of Brits don’t have enough savings to cover one month of no income.

(Sources: GoBankingRates,, Agenciabrasil)

There’s a huge group who is living a future that wasn’t what they were promised. This compounds among younger people, who are the ones most challenged. The real issue here though, is not that they were “robbed” from “their future”.

The issue is that we, as society, are failing to imagine what a positive future can look like. Particularly in the western world. Not only our positive expectations did not turn out to be true. But we can’t find a new set of expectations and beliefs to replace our lost ones.

This makes some people feel like a rudderless ship, where the illusion of “life under control” has been shattered. And their reaction is akin to that of a “deer in the headlights”. Others feel frustrated, and in the absence of expectations where to channel this anger positively, resort to associating with groups that reinforce the negative narrative. Thus targeting scapegoats in an attempt to “restore natural order”. Translation: “The world is f… up and it’s XXXX’s fault” (insert any racist/xenophobic/discriminatory trope).

It’s likely the majority of people don’t suffer an acute case of “No futurism”. Instead, they’re dealing with the insidious and exhaustingly chronic version of it. It is not evident, it is not tangible, it is hard to pinpoint. But it’s there. “No futurism” is constantly gnawing at them. This is a reason why the numbers of anxiety (and mental illness) peak in 20s and 30s. This age is when the litmus test becomes evident, and the expectation gap vs. “what the future should be” hits them (painfully) in the face.  

The lack of a social mobility dream can lead in turn to violence. In a world of “haves” and “have nots”, the “have nots” are angry. Less so because they envy the “haves”. More so, because of a lack of mechanisms to differentiate themselves from other “have nots”. Rene Girard has a masterful theory on the topic, and it’s hard not to agree with him when in 2020 we look around and see violence and scapegoating all over the world. The common thread is that these conflicts pit the losers of the zero sum games against each other, whilst the winners remain safe and untouched from conflict.

It’s possible that this whole analysis is too simplistic. Treating these issues as the byproduct of anemic growth combined with broken institutions runs the risk of overlooking deeper causes. I’m OK with taking that risk. Because I’d rather point out this reality, and the urgent need for a solution, rather than to fall into magical thinking and assume that somehow it will all sort itself out.

Copyright: Pexels

The way out

I do know that there is a way out of this.

I’ll likely expand on this in a future post down the road. But I want to end the series on a positive note, so I wish to offer 2 potential approaches from which to build.Top-down: Political/Corporation leadership mandated. Goes above and beyond the existing agenda.

1) Top-down: Political/Corporation leadership mandated. Goes above and beyond the existing agenda.

2) Bottoms-up: Grass roots/community driven. Changes the existing agenda.

Top down is faster. And less convoluted. But it relies on finding and building strong leadership (political/corporations/institutional). Leadership that is willing to bite the bullet in many cases and forego short term calm waters in exchange of a longer-term calm sea. While there are some countries which seem to have this leadership, they are few and far in between.

Bottoms up is messy. It’s painful. It takes time. But IF it gains traction (big if), it’s much harder to stop. Because unlike the top down approach, where one must go against short term incentives, bottoms up modifies the agenda. It changes the tape. It’s not impossible. Italy has just recently held a referendum where it was voted to reduce the amount of parliamentary members. There will be more cases like these. The question is how to engineer and foster bottoms up, grass roots movements in a scalable way.

Two paths that can bridge top-down and bottoms-up are liquid democracies and decoding hyper objects. More to come on this in a future post.

In closing

These have been longer (and meatier) posts than what I typically write. But this topic has been brewing in the back of my mind for a few years, so I wanted to put it in paper.

This may not be the future we were promised, but it is our responsibility to build our future. We can’t walk away from it.

You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today”.

Abraham Lincoln

Cover image copyright Pexels


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