Oh boy, it’s that time of year! The familiar cacophony of sniffles and coughs echoes throughout each lecture hall, derailing my focus as I attempt to complete my 427th level of Candy Crush. Most of my floormates, who can typically be found occupying the lounge at 1 a.m. with CTB and chemistry textbooks, are now cooped up in their rooms, waiting for their illnesses to subside. Cornell University — filled to the brim with bustling, sleep-deprived students — has warped into a Petri dish of sickness and disease.
But that’s not even the worst of it. As the school year picks up again, one particular plague has made its signature return. Snaking across every corner of campus, this infection has struck everyone in its path.
Its name? Internalized capitalism.
Internalized capitalism … I know, it sounds pretty dramatic. But let’s really think about it. Capitalism, the economic system where independent entities privately own the means of production, has established a direct impact on the workings of American culture. Under capitalism, individuals are forced to maximize productivity and beat out competitors, and because this culture has been written into the daily routines of Americans, it’s also followed them into their homes and social lives.
The result is an American society that highly values individualism, independence and ambition. But it’s gotten even worse in recent years. As globalization and technological development have skyrocketed in the past two decades, this national cutthroat culture has been exaggerated even further. It’s this increased environment of competition and self-imposed stress that today’s youth has grown up immersed in. And as a result, many teenagers and young adults have internalized this capitalist mindset, voluntarily opting to embrace heavier workloads and devote themselves to high-stress commitments.
And this isn’t just mere conjecture; this ever-growing capitalist culture has directly impacted the current mental state and behavioral patterns of America’s youth. Compared to older generations, younger cohorts are overworking themselves and experiencing more stress than ever. One American College Health Association survey reported a 10 percent increase among college students in significant episodes of anxiety or depression since 2013. Jamie Ducharme of Time Magazine provides an accurate summary of this trend, noting that, “Members of Gen Z reported the worst mental health of any generation … stress seems to be largely to blame.”
But what’s even scarier is seeing the numbers translate into real, visible incarnations. Once this academic year kicked off, I could immediately sense the dark cloud of stress that took shape over Cornell’s campus. It felt almost physical, palpable. Prelims have barely started, Ithaca’s still relishing in the final remains of the summer — yet, the student body has already plunged into the never-ending cycle of caffeine-fueled study sessions and all-nighters.
Cornell provides a prime example of the manifestation of internalized capitalism. Each member of this generation is a direct product of the current political and economic climate; but at Cornell particularly, the student population is composed of those who were able to thrive within the existing system of competition (at least for those whose “daddy” didn’t pay their way in).
Therefore, Cornell represents the peak of this youth culture that values individualism and quantifies success through the prestige of one’s LinkedIn profile. It’s a culture that romanticizes stress, pressuring students to grow their resumés and pursue overambitious ventures. Within my circle of friends, none are taking a course load of less than 17 credits. None have rejected an offer to join a new club, a new extracurricular, a new commitment. None go to bed before 2 a.m. each night.
All are stressed.
And I’m not exempt from this plague either — I’m also a victim! This year, I’ve watched myself willingly sabotage my mental health and well-being with stress and self-imposed pressure. When I’m not stressed out by my academics, I’m stressed out by extracurriculars. When I’m not stressed out by extracurriculars, I find something new to stress over. And when I’ve run out of stress-inducing worries, I grow enormously suspicious of my free time. In our capitalist society that values efficiency, I’ve come to see time as a finite resource; failing to maximize productivity in the free time that I’ve got carries a steep opportunity cost.
At the start of each week, we tell ourselves that all we have to do is make it through the current week. And though we’re only four weeks into the semester, I already feel trapped in the endless cycle of college. Finding purpose through our work during the weekdays, then temporarily alleviating our pain with weekend hedonism — this isn’t how I want to live out my college experience.
Drooping eye bags, searing headaches, a persistent lack of energy — the symptoms of internalized capitalism are not dissimilar to that of an actual disease. But the first step in curing the illness is recognizing and diagnosing it.
For the rest of this year, I’m committing myself to actively evaluating the returns of each of my commitments. Do the gratifications and benefits outweigh the costs of burnout and anxiety? I’m committing myself to valuing the intimate moments as much, if not more than, the academic and professional ones. The random nights spent driving across campus to wolf down cajun fries from Louie’s, the dinners spent laughing around a table at Keeton with my friends — these are the moments I’ll cherish the most. And hopefully, these are the moments that’ll pull me out from this affliction of internalized capitalism.
Niko Nguyen is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Unfiltered runs every other Wednesday this semester.