The Age of Rage: Why are People are So Angry?

According to a 2018 Guardian article, we are living in an ‘age of rage’. Such anger is often framed as having an ideological or political bend or etiology (e.g. Trump, Biden, Covid). Another article The West needs to grow up argues that infantilism is to blame for society’s problems. Jonathan Haidt makes similar arguments that colleges are coddling or protecting students from ‘harmful ideas,’ and as adults, after graduating, this coddling manifests as hostile intolerance of opposing views, or more tangible outcomes like the defacement of art out of protest. Or on the other extreme, the ‘Karen‘ caricature, which has become a cultural phenomenon in its own right.

This is backed by quantifiable data, too. Surveys of Americans’ average satisfaction across seven dimensions of society are at multi-decade lows, especially nosediving after Covid:

And from CNN in 2022, “American happiness hits record lows.” Or from Gallup in 2024, “The percentage of Americans ‘very’ satisfied with lives near record low”:

A Gallup survey released Thursday found that 47 percent of Americans consider themselves “very satisfied” with their lives — only the third time since 2002 that less than half of Americans reported high satisfaction. This 2024 percentage is just 1 percentage point higher than the 2011 record low, when 46 percent of Americans said they were very satisfied with their personal lives.

The problem is part economic and psychological. In the latter, consider the type of content that goes viral, which is of a moralizing or lecturing tone, like ‘stop being lazy/poor’, ‘rise and grind’, or ‘kids these days…’. These videos are extremely popular and often show up in user’s YouTube recommendations, and likely have some affect on discourse by reducing empathy. Or feelings of inadequacy if you’re not a multi-millionaire by your early 30s. In contrast, 10-15 or so years ago, before everything was viewed through a red or blue lens, viral content was more of a whimsical (like cat videos) or introspective nature, such as David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech “This is Water”, Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford University commencement address, or Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” in 2007. Such videos are more about how to live a better life, not about putting a wedge between some imagined group against another group or categorizing people into winners or losers.

Viral videos on X/Twitter of societal breakdown are algorithmically promoted to millions, such as looting and physical violence, creating the perception by the public that lawlessness reigns and consequently having the effect of making people less trusting of each other. These videos although manifestly true in the sense of documenting actual unrest, need to be put in a broader context of being uncommon relative to people behaving peacefully. Videos of police misconduct go viral, but not videos of police doing their jobs competently or suspects complying with orders.

On the economics-front, inflation especially for food is out of control, as well as more insidious forms of inflation such as shrinkflation. Fast food is hardly cheap or fast anymore. Meals from Mcdonald’s and Wingstop can easily run in the $20-30 range, combined with chronic understaffing. The economics don’t make it worthwhile to hire more, due to labor being too expensive and profit margins being thin at retailers. This can make people angrier, as poor customer service is one of the biggest complaints people have when shopping. The result is customers and staff being pushed to their breaking points. (It’s no accident r/TalesFromRetail has 1.4 million subscribers.) Same for anxieties about unaffordable home ownership, medical bills, or college tuition. Even if Americans are nominally wealthier, they also feel increasingly squeezed.

Politics has become increasingly divorced from the personal. Because the stakes are perceived as so high, being on the wrong side of the debate can mean tangible social consequences, like loss of friendships or shunning at work. The refusal to be recruited for the latest social or political cause can be perceived as disloyalty or even an act of betrayal. It’s like, “You’re not wearing a mask in 2024?” Or the use of vague language like ‘problematic’. How are we supposed to resolve our differences if we cannot even explain or describe what they are? Or, on the other side of the aisle, the cheering-on of America’s imminent destruction or Civil War. Which if history shows, if answered, may have the opposite intended or hoped for outcome. The Civil War led to the total dissolution and erasure of Southern autonomy, for example.

Sure, the Lewinsky Scandal and the O.J. trial captivated the nation during the nineties, but taking a wrong side didn’t amount to an indictment of one’s character like seen today. Everyone could agree O.J. was guilty (or at least bore the countenance of guilt). Being on the side of Clinton or Starr didn’t make you treasonous, a pedophile, or a white supremacist. Or how everything has become politically coded. It used to be that movies were good/bad because of plot or character development or lack thereof, not because of being vehicles of propaganda. Or voting. If you supported Ron Paul it’s because you opposed government overreach; you were not also making an implicit statement about everyone else being bad. Romney/Obama voters were misinformed and could be corrected; they were not morally defective people.

In regard to my own experience, compared to a decade ago and especially since 2022, I have found that discourse online is increasingly like walking on eggshells in which the wrong statement means an implicit approval or condoning the most extreme caricature or misconstruction of your views, so this means having to be precise to a fault to as to not be misunderstood (by people who seem intent on missing the point) as tacitly endorsing fascism, marxism or other Bad Thing®, with lots of hedging language. I am not alone in this regard:

Being misunderstood would not be so bad, but having wrong views in an era of algorithms and sentiment-tracking means being filtered or shadow-banned, like on social media as was common during Covid.

Same for an increasingly atomistic, individualistic society. Not just like-mindedness online, such as ‘filter bubbles’, but also in the ‘real world’ too, such as mode of transportation (trucks vs. cars), geography (‘rural values’ vs. ‘coastal elites’), or religious affiliation (or none). Americans have more ways than ever to create or curate a lifestyle in which they can engage minimally or not at all with those who share differing views.

My thesis has been that America is characterized by low levels of violence but also low social trust. These may seem at odds with each other, but given that violence tends to happen among among acquaintances (e.g. domestic violence, gang violence) a more atomistic and less trusting society may also mean a less violent one, save for the occasional mass shooting or public outburst. So this means more low-level individual anxiety from people’s social needs being unmet or a general disillusionment with society, but it seldom crosses over to violence or widespread unrest. Other countries tend to be the opposite of more violence and corruption but also more trusting and social cohesion.

Again, this long predates Covid (the aforelinked Gaudian article is from 2018), such as the famous 1995 essay “Bowling Alone” by political scientist Robert Putnam, who describes the decline of social institutions and the increasing atomization of society. Sports events, concerts, and movies bring people together, but this tends to be infrequent and among people who are already acquaintances, not having to engage with strangers which is necessary for civic engagement. Or the post-2010s rise in teen anxiety as documented by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, which he blames on social media. However, this does not necessarily establish causality: are people angrier because they are more anxious, or does anger lead to anxiety? Probably a mix of both.

Friends and Seinfeld were two pillars of ’90s television. It’s hard to overstate the importance of these shows for their cultural significance, but also being events that served as social bonding. Analogous to religious attendance, people gathered together at a predicable time and place to watch these shows. Nowadays everyone is watching 60-second reels, which is the longest that obliterated attention-spans will allow for. And tastes are so fragmented and divided among different platforms and creators, instead of only a couple dozen TV shows and actors. Same for sharing physical media such as DVDs and CDs, which has also stopped.

There is also the perception that the people who are getting ahead in life are the least deserving of their success, as the ongoing situation at Boeing shows, or the endless data leaks or breaches which are chalked up as mistakes, yet despite the ability of credit report companies to optimize ads to target even the smallest of demographics with laser-like precision, are evidently unable to take cursory security precautions or learn from their mistakes (because when the consequences are immaterial and can be written-off as a business expense, why bother?). Or the promise in early 2022 of inflation being transitory, which is clearly wasn’t. Or Covid lockdowns lasting far longer than originally planned, and as the NYC nursing home scandal showed, made things worse. All of this breeds well-earned resentment by the public against policy and business-elites.

Those Dale Carnegie and other business books were always bullshit. We inhabit a society in which people who embody the exact opposite of the advice espoused in those books are the most successful, such as being arrogant and poor listeners. Eventually enough people wised up to it or were taken advantage of. Imagine you want to create a generation of suckers; what better way than to write a popular business book full of bad advice marketed to those very people you will be exploiting.

In the past, receiving an unsolicited message was merely annoying or even ignored, but now it’s called spam. By giving a name to something, makes it seem worse. The overuse of the words ‘disinformation/misinformation’ suggests some sort of malicious intent to deceive, whereas in the past it was called ‘being wrong’. The use of real-time fact-checking, such Elon Musk’s embrace of Twitter fact-checking, although this makes for a more accurate environment online, at the same time possibly lowers social trust because it introduces (so-called social priming) the implicit assumption that everyone is trying to deceive us.

Or people are upset because of unmet expectations. Individual success has become the ultimate thing to aspire to, so falling short of some idealization of success leads to resentment and anger, which is made worse by survivorship bias and the pervasiveness of social media, in which everyone appears successful, which distorts people’s perception of reality. To quote Freddie deBoar, “We’ve built a society in which there are more ways to be a loser than a winner.” I couldn’t agree more.

This is related to the ‘elite overproduction’ hypothesis, which has gained currency in recent years. Universities churn out so many overqualified graduates that not everyone will be successful in either the job market or academia, or having to settle for subsistence wages. Many of these people are objectively smart, but maybe not as accomplished as they hoped so they take out their frustrations on others in the only way they can have control in a world in which they are otherwise irrelevant and powerless, such as content moderation (e.g. overzealous Reddit moderators) and on social media (such as the policing of ‘misinformation’ during Covid).

Life can be divided into four stages: adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, and retirement/senescence. In the first two stages, there is a lot of room for potential even despite innate factors like intelligence or personality. Shorty after college, maybe you have some idea of your career path, but there is still time to figure it out. But by the time you’re in your mid-30s to early 40s, such potential is replaced by a more concrete realization of your position or station in life. If you haven’t yet gotten the lucrative promotion, or started a multi-million-dollar company, or secured the desired academic position, it’s not going to happen. In some cases, it’s immutable. For example, recipients of the coveted Fields Medal and the John Bates Clark Medal must be 40 or under. It’s even worse for professional sports.

I don’t know why academics and pundits have to act like happiness is this complicated or inscrutable thing or cloak it in needless abstraction. I think the depressing reality is most people are not that good at anything and thus cannot feel the satisfaction that comes from achievement. Sometimes the simple truth is too painful or inconvenient to bear, so we have to hide it with caveats “money does not buy happiness” and needless abstractions. As it turns out, there is no ceiling or point of diminishing returns for income vs. happiness. Successful people also tend to live longer, too. And from a 2023 YouGov poll, repsondees in the lowest income bracket report 3.5x higher dissatisfaction compared to the highest of earners:

Again, this should not be that surprising, but there has been this pervasive narrative that money does not matter, and the evidence is pretty lacking under closer scrutiny.

From Freddie deBoer again, “All of this is just another facet of my old saw that there’s more ways to be a loser than a winner in our society. That basic impulse was the ultimate origin of my first book. (Which sold terribly, making me a loser in an additional domain.) Unemployed = loser, manual labor that’s not among the handful of jobs that are romanticized in our culture = loser, basic low-level white-collar job = loser, still trying to break into a creative field after your early 20s = loser….”

It’s a statistical certainty that not everyone can be above average. Only 25% can be in the top quartile. This applies to everything, within professions and society as a whole. This means there will inevitably be a lot of losers. Not everyone can be like Elon musk or Jeff Bezos. Or in regard to academia, not everyone will secure lucrative grants, be awarded tenure, get prestigious awards, or publish important research. Maybe we need more ways to create winners. However, the economic conditions that lead to winner-take-all markets and scarcity in academia or other respects of professional life are getting worse. Humanities departments, which typically employ a lot of grads, are also chronically understaffed and being cut-back. Companies are increasingly turning to AI to cut costs and reduce headcount.

Ross Perot described outsourcing of jobs as “the giant sucking sound,” but now what is also being sucked away is our sanity and peace of mind. Will any of this improve? I am not that optimistic. Inflation may trend down, but high prices are still here to stay. Economic incentives have created environments where we’re constantly being prodded by bad news or negativity on social media. The spontaneous, unserious era of the early 2010s internet is never coming back. Much like how the late hedge fund pioneer James Simons ‘solved the market’, social media marketers have figured out the winning formula for maximizing engagement and page views, and there is no rational reason for profit-maximizing firms to depart from this even if it leads to more anxiety, which if anything is the desired or intended outcome. It’s said, ‘may you live in interesting times,’ well I think today qualifies as any.