The Instant Society… and Rise of Stress and the Decline of Forethought

Final examinations are nearing at Southern Utah University, and student stress is building to incredible levels, as it does near the end of every semester these days.

Every day, my wife, who is a full professor at S.U.U., is deluged by students who are “so stressed” that they’re having trouble coping. They have great trouble dealing with the term papers, the projects, the juries, the performances, and the examinations that all come due in the last week of the semester. Now… such requirements aren’t exactly new. They’ve been a part of collegiate curricula literally for generations, and my wife and other professors continually warn students not to procrastinate and attempt to get them to think ahead. But very few of them do, and this generation seems to have far more difficulty in dealing with the situation than any previous generation. Yet the world that awaits them beyond school is filled with deadlines and pressures, and eliminating or reducing such pressures from college, as some institutions are apparently attempting to do, hardly seems a good way to prepare students for “real” life.

Why? Is just that they’re more verbal about the pressures? No… I don’t think so. There are too many other indications that they actually do feel stressed out. But why? Why should these college students be so stressed? They have the highest standard of living of any group of students in history and the most opportunities. When I was their age, the country was in turmoil, and there were riots about the Vietnam War, and a goodly percentage of young men faced the draft or military service in the service of their “choice” before the draft claimed them for the Army. When my parents were students, it was the middle of the Great Depression, and Germany was turning to Nazism, and World War II loomed. When their parents were students, the era of the Robber Barons was in full swing, and the nation was heading into World War I.

The vast majority of problems faced by today’s students are internal, arising out of their own chosen life-style and habit patterns. Yes, there is a drug problem, but they don’t have to use or abuse; that’s a matter of choice. Even war, for them is a matter of choice, given that we have an all-volunteer armed services. HIV, AIDS… those too are essentially a matter of choice, except in very rare cases. Whether one gets into the “right” university or graduate school is not a matter of survival, unlike being conscripted for WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. And while the “right” school may confer greater opportunities, those opportunities don’t come down to actual survival, but to a higher level of income and prosperity.

Yet “stress” and college counselors abound, and most students seem to complain about being “stressed out.”

I’d submit that this wide-spread epidemic of stress is the result of our “instant society.” Back before the age of computers, doing something like a term paper required a certain amount of forethought. Papers, strangely enough, were far longer then, and required more research, with extensive footnotes and bibliographies. Typing them required more time, and anything more than punctuation revisions could not be made without retyping the entire page. Tables had to be carefully measured and hand-typed. Graphs were hand-drawn. What can be done in minutes today on a computer took hours and then some.

Today’s students are used to getting everything “instantly.” When I was a student, unless you were wealthy, telephone calls required either lots of quarters and a pay phone [now nearly obsolete] or a recipient who would accept the charges. That necessitated at least some forethought. Today, it’s just flip open the cellphone and call. There was exactly one fast food restaurant in the town where my alma mater is located, and it was a long walk from campus, and the college grill closed at 10:00 p.m. And late late or Sunday shopping for paper or supplies… forget it.

Now… I’m not praising the “good old days.” I’m just saying that they were different, and that difference required a basic understanding that you couldn’t do everything at the last moment, because very little in society was “instant.” Even so, some students procrastinated… and flunked out. Today, they can procrastinate, and technology sort of allows them to throw something together… but it’s often a mess… and they end up stressed out.

No matter what anyone says, it just doesn’t occur to most of them to plan ahead. Why should it? Between watered-down high school curricula where last minute preparation usually suffices, especially for the brighter students, and a society that caters to instant gratification on all levels, very few of them have ever had to plan ahead in terms of dealing with day-to-day work and studies.

They’re intelligent; they’re incredibly quick at some things, like video and computer games and tasks and internet searches. What they aren’t good at is foreseeing the convergence of the mundane into a barrier that can’t be surmounted at the last minute. Nor are they all that good at seeing beyond the immediate visual superficiality and assessing how what they see may play out in the long run.

So… we have stressed-out students, many of whom will turn into adults who will end up even more stressed out when it turns out that neither technology nor the instant society have an instant solution for their lack of forethought… when they truly have run out of time.