In the 2010s, panic swept across elite private high schools in the US. These institutions, designed to usher bourgeois coastal city offspring into the most elite colleges possible, were experiencing unprecedented rates of suicide within their student bodies. Understandably, these students couldn’t cope with the immense pressure placed on them by administrators, teachers, and their parents to climb to the top 10% of their class, excel in a diverse set of extracurriculars, and overperform on every standardized test. A failure in pre-calculus translated to a failure in life; if you didn’t ace that exam or end poverty in San Francisco, you were doomed to live on the street for eternity, bringing dishonor and shame to all of your ancestors.
While this extreme degree of pressure remained relatively isolated to ‘feeder’ schools (high schools dedicated to graduating ivy-league bound students), the college application craze swept the nation. I participated in various extracurricular activities in high school, all of which I enjoyed but were ultimately designed to market me as the ideal candidate for the college of my choice. Unlike the generations before me, we were raised not to value God, family, or community but our accomplishments above all else.
The phrase “this will look great on my resume!” has caused Gen Z to obsess with material accomplishments while simultaneously having to find a way to be a unique, stand-out applicant. Adolescence transformed from a period of learning and growth to the process of optimizing the self. As a consequence, individuals are forced to brand themselves before they know who they are, what they want, and what they value. In order to garner admission to elite colleges, young adults are forced to find a way to stand out from the crowd, isolating themselves from their peers. This widespread apex-predator mentality is antithetical to what makes a strong community; without community, the human psyche suffers. Perhaps young adults, especially young men, are so susceptible to extremist movements and adopt radical, reactionary beliefs because they yearn for some sort of connection to others based on a common goal, not an individual triumph.
Talking heads remain perplexed by the ever-rising rates of mental illness, substance abuse, and suicide among American youth and are quick to attribute the moral panic to social media or video games, which strikes me as a severe cop-out. Social media and video games seem to be a coping mechanism for the profound sense of loneliness and lack of purpose that has been cultivated in youth culture throughout the last twenty years.
The current approach to college applications forces adolescents into isolation, imposes a dangerously heightened sense of self, and promotes a ruthless approach toward peers. Although competition among individuals is essential for human progress, the current collapse of common decency and humanity has proven that a baseline of camaraderie is essential for a prosperous society.
While the college application process is an excellent example of the West’s growing obsession with individual identity, branding, and the monetization of the self, what is more worth exploring is how we can re-humanize ourselves. Modern capitalism has succeeded in commodifying everything, including self-identity. While I don’t know if that could be avoided, I am confident that it could be combatted with a shift in general societal praxis toward the community and away from the individual’s desire.