At the outset, you will have to forgive this writer for a few underlying assumptions. The first assumption is that you are equally shocked by the developments of the previous decade. The second that, like me, you too cannot account for the broader contexts of the 2010s despite being mentally healthy and sober throughout the decade. That is to say, you can recall what you were doing and what was happening in your lives, but you could not relate to the rapidly changing realities around you or figure out your role in them. I call it the sleepwalk through history. And the final assumption: that you are as curious about the reasons behind this numbness, these shocks, and that to get to the bottom of it all, you are ready to read some books and watch a few documentaries. If any of these assumptions are wrong, then…well…wrong number. You are free to leave this piece and do something better with your life. But before you leave, please note that it seeks to warn the reader against more shock.
To understand the shocks and the heartaches of the 2010s, you have to understand the impact of the great recession of 2008. As corporate greed in the derivative market wreaked havoc with the happy bubble of economic well-being, societies worldwide witnessed the slow evaporation of a host of bright possibilities. And yet, as the political world realigned to make the victory of the first African American president (radical times require radical solutions) for a heartbeat, it felt like things would be okay. That the big boys had stepped in, and they would right the societal wrongs and punish those responsible for this mess. But that was not to be. In his autobiographical account of the formative phase of his presidency, A Promised Land, President Obama elaborates on the fights and struggles he had to endure to right the ship. But at that time, the only accounts available were books like Bob Woodward’s Obama’s wars, where the author recollects the dramatic transformation in Obama’s demeanour after his first national security briefing, who until then was charged and ebullient: “When Obama returned, his demeanor was different. He was more reserved, even aggravated.” Even to his inner circle that had been forbidden to participate in this meeting on the Bush administration’s orders, it must have looked like the bad guys had got to him. To the distressed world outside, it must have further exacerbated the paranoia.
“I’m inheriting a world that could blow up any minute in half a dozen ways, and I will have some powerful but limited and perhaps even dubious tools to keep it from happening,” Obama later remarked to a close confidante. To their credit, he and his administration did what they could to revive and stabilise the economy and create as many jobs as possible. But they were jobs created during a crisis, often subpar and much less paying. It led to the gig economy where a person had to do more than one job to make as much money. Now imagine if you are growing up in this age.
In fairness, the world Obama inherited showed the courtesy not to blow up until he was out of presidency even though it showed the early willingness to do so in 2011-12 (tea party movement), 2014 (Russian annexation of Crimea, rise of the racist far-right in Europe, and Modi’s shocking victory in India), and 2015 (Brexit). But it did blow up in 2016 when Trump was thrust into the most influential public office in the world with a sledgehammer.
After that, many of us started paying some heed. But once again, to the symptom, not the malaise. To the explosions but not the undercurrents resulting from what the late internet critic and thinker Mark Fisher called the “slow cancellation of the future”. Fisher, who killed himself in January 2017 battling with depression, has written some thought-provoking books. The one whence the above phrase came is called Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. There can’t be a better explanation of what went wrong in the pre-Trump days.
The fact remains that generations do not pause growing up and old just because of the adverse economic circumstances. But to the generation brought into this world in the time of prosperity, the phantom-like disappearing of the realisable dreams must have stung badly. Then unlike ours, this generation grew up in the age of high-speed internet and omnipresent screens. They connected and turned morose with every passing day. We had seen this phenomenon before. Where people with broken dreams turned inward. In Japan, many heartbreaks resulting from the economic slowdown had already turned a significant part of its young population into Otakus. An Otaku is a shut-in who, in most cases, refuses to join the adult world or leave their parent’s home and spends most time in the fantasy world of Manga and Anime. Peter Pan syndrome, through and through.
I have mentioned Matt Alt’s brilliant book, Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World, more than once in this space. Another book builds this connection and shows how this frustration and the toxicity of the resulting internet subcultures are tearing our world apart these days. The book is called It came from something awful, by Dale Beran. The internet phenomenon of the 4chan, 8chan, and 8kun message boards and how they gave rise to both alt-right and Antifa are all dealt in the most perceptive way possible in these books.
There are other books too. Controversial politician JD Vance’s Hillbilly elegy and Alie Hochschild’s Strangers in their own land, but the message is simple. Policymakers seldom take all variables into account, and the mental health issues resulting from the slow burn of an economy in distress are one of them. Today’s generation has already gone through the trauma of the Covid lockdowns and economic downturn. One more global recession or collapse resulting from the inflationary pressures will destroy another generation. Now that one sees the growing demands of the IMF from Pakistan without considering the distress it may cause and the global economic outlook, one shudders. World leaders, especially the conscientious ones, should know that wars, ambitions and petty fights are less important than the mental safety of the current generation in this age of global hyper-connectivity. We must put an end to the slow cancellation of the future.