By Katherine Skippon
Neoliberalism and health are two concepts we rarely talk about in the same conversation. The link between our economic reality and whether or not we feel ill is barely discussed, let alone properly acknowledged.
Neoliberalism is our current economic situation, where markets and businesses have little regulation and society is ‘meritocratic’, e.g. supposedly we all have an equal chance to get to the top. It’s been proved countless times that in practice, often our societies don’t work like that. However, the connection between this system, its effect on our everyday lives, and thus impact on our health, is rarely explored.
On an everyday level, neoliberalism is our experience of a 9-5 job and commute, the attitude that we are entitled to nothing, we must work for our homes and food, and compete to get to the top of the biggest and then best. Of course, when we see it through this lens, the stress we put on our minds and bodies day to day appears astonishing. To put it plainly, if we took the time to look at how neoliberalism and capitalism have multiple adverse effects on our bodies and mind we might have to stop and ask; is this all really working?
Firstly, the day-to-day symptoms of capitalism affect our physical health and make us ill. We sit in front of desks 9-5, five days a week, and sit in cars and on trains on our commute there. Even when we take the opportunity to walk around our urban areas, we are subjected to the fumes and chemicals pouring out of our cars and factories. Sitting down all day breathing in bad air means that we become ill incredibly easily, even those who walk to work, or work in retail where they spend their shifts stood up, rarely move in a dynamic way all day.
The UK has long been suffering from rising rates of obesity and disease, and on top of the lack of movement in our work places, brands create processed foods, full of chemicals, which are cheap, easy to heat up and eat after a long day, but do terrifying things to our bodies. The epidemic we face in illnesses relating to our lifestyle may not be down to individual laziness, but arguably are the product of a society that wants us to sit down, shut up, and keep working.
Furthermore, the illusion of nature is created in our parks and ‘green spaces’, all man made and plonked in the middle of cities to try and keep us from feeling crazy. We’re humans, we’re connected to nature and we’re designed to walk and run, but these green spaces trick us into thinking we have had our daily dose of fresh air and vitamin D, whilst we’re still breathing in chemical infused air pollution.
The attack on our minds is also shocking. Business and capitalism by nature is all about getting a profit, profit comes from people buying products. In 2017, that’s mostly products that we don’t really need, like more clothes, makeup or technology. It means that we’re always trying to play catch up with an unstoppable conveyor belt of ‘what’s new’, and comparing what we have to other people. These comparisons make us miserable as they remind us of what we don’t own.
However, neoliberalism affects our mental health in other, more insidious ways. Huge companies profit by producing the medication we buy to correct the damage they cause us by the encouraged materialism discussed above. Our hectic work schedules stress us out, and make us feel anxious; from a student’s viewpoint, it’s the disparity between how hard we work, and our jobless, homeless futures which make us depressed. We work until we’re exhausted to try and rid ourselves of the uncertainty our future is defined by. We then pay for endless tablets and pills to numb these feelings we can’t cope with, funding those huge corporations who profit from our misery. Of course, mental health is an extremely individual issue, but to any who resonate with the above, I would argue, ‘Don’t get numb, get even.’
The reality is, as young people, we should be an outraged, unstoppable as a force and hugely angry at this system which creeps into, and slowly past our everyday lives and settles down in our minds and bodies. Students should be questioning the 9-5 office set up and demanding flexible working in a future where their health is a priority. Efficiency of a worker cannot be the most important quality which we as a human are judged by, if the competition to make ourselves more efficient makes us ill. At the very least, the way our neoliberalist, capitalist structure impacts our mental and physical health should be a problem which is much more widely voiced.
This is a problem whose size is vast but which is hidden under the pretence that we are all individuals and these ‘individual’ problems hence cannot be associated with structures such as our economic system. But they can. Speak out about the tiny, everyday structures in our lives which fill us with anxiety and depression among other conditions. Speak out about your grim commute to a job which doesn’t feel meaningful for you, working set hours where you don’t feel productive, but trapped. Speak about being at university drenched in a life of uncertain assignments leading to uncertain job prospects and the potential to be living at your parents’ home until you are 40. It isn’t laziness, or inability to work, it is injustice and a system of very few winners, and an incredible number of losers. Life isn’t fair, and no, that is not okay.