Here’s one approach to dealing with the uncertainties of our economic future: Jim Rawles keeps a three-year supply of food on his ranch—he won’t say where it’s located—and has “a bigger gun collection than most and enough ammo to last lifetimes. But the ammo is what I’ll be using to trade when gold and silver will be meaningless.”
Rawles isn’t alone in preparing for economic doom. The survivalist website he founded (survivalblog.com) after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 typically draws 326,000 different visitors a week—and spiked after Hurricane Sandy. Twenty years ago, conservative Christians accounted for 90 percent of survivalists, according to Rawles. “Now, a survivalist is just as likely to be agnostic or Jewish or Birkenstock-wearing lefties. Conservative Christians don’t have the market on common sense.”
The future, by its nature, is uncertain. But it seems even more tenuous than usual these days, as the security of employment, investments, retirement—indeed, the very weather—looks more unpredictable than in decades past. A society of steady jobs, stable families, and a blue-sky future is confined to Nickelodeon reruns. “Increasingly, people are recognizing the fragility and complexity of society,” Rawles said. “We’re more and more dependent on the power grid and greater interdependence on the food supply. Our vulnerability has increased.… People are looking for real-world solutions for their families.”
Americans are living in an age of anxiety. A World Health Organization study published in 2007 ranked the United States as the most anxious nation, by a lot: Nearly a third of all Americans reported suffering from an anxiety problem in their lifetime. (Colombia ranked second at 25 percent.) U.S. prescriptions for antianxiety medications have been rising by 3 to 4 percent a year, recession or not, according to IMS Health, a New Jersey-based medical-information company.
Anxiety isn’t confined to Americans who hold down jobs and mortgages. An annual survey of students entering four-year colleges, conducted by the University of California (Los Angeles), found that 51.9 percent considered themselves above average in emotional health in 2010, a drop of 3.4 percentage points from 2009 and way down from the 63.6 percent registered in 1985, when the survey began. Experts cite weaker ties to the community, less reliance on religion as a buffer against the unknown, a shrinking safety net for pensions and health care, and strained expectations that children will fare better than their parents as factors that increase people’s fears about the future.
“It’s hard to tolerate uncertainty,” said Robert Leahy, a psychologist who is director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy. “We think if we don’t worry about it, we won’t be prepared.”
For many people, in fact, the stress of uncertainty can be worse than the stress of knowing the worst. Sarah Burgard, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, has examined how the fear of losing one’s job—realistic or otherwise—has affected people’s health. Drawing data from two studies, respectively spanning three and 10 years, she and her colleagues looked at almost 3,000 working Americans younger than 60, some of them anxious about losing their jobs and some of them untroubled. After adjusting for gender, education, income, general anxiety level, and employment history, the researchers found that people who felt chronically insecure about their jobs reported more depression and significantly worse health overall than people who had actually lost a job and found another.
Looking more recently at workers in metropolitan Detroit in the wake of the Great Recession, Burgard found the same thing. “There were significantly higher levels of depression, anxiety, and panic disorder in people who had jobs but were worried about losing them,” she said. “And in some cases, people who had been unemployed but recently got jobs were in better shape than people who had never been unemployed but thought the risk of job loss was high.”
Her conclusion: After someone loses a job or a home, it is imperative to keep pushing forward. “The inability to take action,” she said, “is really stressful.”
Something else can help in dealing with uncertainty: applying some reality to the fears. Most people, psychologist Leahy noted, assume that uncertainty is tantamount to a bad outcome. A study of college students who predicted negative outcomes for, say, an exam or a relationship found that in 85 percent of the cases, the outcome was neutral or positive. “And of those negative outcomes that came true, 79 percent handled them better than they thought they could,” Leahy said. That is, just because you’re worried about something doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. And even if it does, you’ll probably cope with it better than you expect.
This article appears in the November 30, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine as Coping With Chaos.