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Hikikomori and Lying Flat: When “Making It” Becomes Hopeless – Charles Hugh Smith

No wonder so many people devote themselves to curating an artificial digital representation of themselves that they reckon is worthy of recognition and status.

What does it take to “make it” in today’s economy? As described in Withdrawing from the Rat Race Is Going Global, the world has changed in fundamental ways that have made it much more difficult to “make it” into the ranks of the middle class, and even harder to claw one’s way into the higher reaches of the economic order, i.e. the top 10%.

In summary, developed economies have been stripped of secure, well-paid manual-labor work, the purchasing power of wages has declined, prices of assets such as homes have skyrocketed out of reach and the mass overproduction of elites (those with college diplomas and advanced degrees) has created a winner-take-all competitive pressure cooker with few winners and an abundance of also-rans.

In other words, the work-a-day world has become far more complex and far more demanding than it was two generations ago. It’s not just making enough to pay the bills that’s more demanding; the work is more demanding, as is everyday life, which now demands far more shadow work–work we do to manage life’s complexities that we’re not paid for. Having children is far more expensive and demanding, too, as the competition for upper-middle class slots now starts in Kindergarten.

Many individuals do not have the armor and weaponry needed to enter the arena and survive the competition. It’s easy to dismiss them as “lazy,” but that’s not the issue. It’s also easy to dismiss them as snowflakes, young people who have been shielded from life’s rougher edges by overprotective parents, leaving them ill-equipped for the slings and arrows of modern life.

But this isn’t the issue, either. The real issue is the social and economic demands now exceed the carrying capacity of many people. Where it was possible to find a secure low-level job that could support a household and find a place in society’s pecking order two generations ago with limited social / work skills, now it’s essentially impossible: low-level work is insecure and too poorly paid to support a household, and it is viewed as demeaning and unworthy of respect.

How do humans respond when they’re viewed as worthless and they feel hopeless? In the Hollywood script, they pick themselves up, dust themselves off, gather a discarded shield and sword off the blood-soaked sand of the arena and go out and kick some derriere. (“Take that, nepo scum!”)

Many people manage to do this and we applaud their grit and determination. But not every individual wins in this battle. Many pick up the shield and the sword and are immediately trampled. They make a realistic assessment that they can’t possibly reach the lofty goals demanded of them, and so they are effectively excluded from what is now considered “normal life.”

This comment on a Reddit thread speaks to the increasing demands of “normal life”:

I obviously can’t speak for everyone, but I can give some insight based on my own social withdrawal: modern life is overwhelming. It feels like there’s a lot that’s expected of you. In many ways modern life is a giant competition for wealth and status, but instead of competing just within your community, you have to compete with millions of people all around the world. It feels daunting, if not impossible. Why compete in a contest you know you can’t win? It’s pointless, it’s a waste of time and energy. I feel very much like, “well, what’s the point?”

So they drop out of the competition. Maybe they take a part-time gig job, maybe they move back home to take care of a parent or grandparent, or they become a recluse.

Hikikomori–hiki, to withdraw–komori, inside–is an extreme form of voluntary social isolation from society. The term originated in Japan but the abandonment of conforming to the demands of society is not limited to Japan. Withdrawing from the demands of what passes for “normal life” is not limited to extremes of seclusion; it is a spectrum of withdrawal that includes giving up on striving for upper-middle class membership (which goes by terms such as lying flat and let it rot) to minimizing engagement with the world in a variety of ways.

The medical professions have naturally sought to frame this voluntary seclusion as a psychiatric disorder, but it is not a disease or disorder, it is a psychological response to an impossible set of familial and social-economic demands in a social order that no longer offers a positive role, socially or economically, for the marginalized and those lacking what it takes to meet the increasing demands of an economy of surplus elites striving for the diminishing pool of jobs that provide both 1) a secure middle-class income and 2) a way of life that doesn’t strip the worker of everything but work.

This is not so much a mystifying disorder as an understanding that seclusion is viewed as the only available response left to social-economic exclusion.

In a hyper-globalized, hyper-financialized developed economy, there are no social or economic roles left for those who cannot enter the coliseum of “highly productive workers” and emerge victorious. Part-time precarious work is all that’s available to them, and it’s poorly paid and earns zero status or respect, so the impoverishment of those for whom this is best they can manage is both physical and psychological.

Trying to live up to the standards of “normal life” extracts more than they have to give in return for an awareness of inadequacy and demands more than they can give in return for the impossibility of meeting expectations in a social order in which ridicule, exclusion and harassment are normalized.

Unable to qualify for social approval and validation–winners must have high social skills and oversized ambitions, be willing to work insanely long hours and pass grueling all-or-nothing exams, then work insanely long hours to prove one’s social merit, marry and have children whose success in a competitive pressure cooker is a heavy responsibility–those who lack these traits either endure a quite realistic sense of the hopelessness of “succeeding” in a competition they are ill-equipped to survive, much less win, or withdraw from the hell of other people (recalling Sartre’s famous line in No Exit: Hell is other people.).

Those who are excluded have said the pain of loneliness is easier to bear than the pain of dealing with other people.

Where working class jobs in factories once offered security, community and a positive identity of being a productive, valued worker, now the physical-labor jobs are viewed as demeaning and those doing the work find their work isn’t validated or respected.

In previous generations, education, vehicles, healthcare and housing were all affordable to anyone with steady work who exhibited basic frugality in service of saving. A great many jobs offered security, community, a positive identity and a ladder of social mobility to lower-middle class stability that then served as a platform for one’s children to climb even higher.

Now working class jobs are characterized by insecurity and precariousness, a threadbare social circle of other workers and neighbors passing through and very little validation of being a contributing member of society.

No wonder so many people devote themselves to curating an artificial digital representation of themselves that they reckon is worthy of recognition and status, and perhaps even admiration and envy. The real world no longer offers much of an avenue for their real selves to receive what every human wants: to be recognized as an individual who contributes to the greater whole to the best of their ability and is thus worthy of self-respect and the respect of others.

I will have more to say about this striving for an artificial substitute for authentic recognition and identity in my next post.

New podcast: CHS on Leafbox (1:20 hrs)–authentic community, going grey, Doom Loops and more.

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Self-Reliance in the 21st Century print $18, (Kindle $8.95, audiobook $13.08 (96 pages, 2022) Read the first chapter for free (PDF)

The Asian Heroine Who Seduced Me (Novel) print $10.95, Kindle $6.95 Read an excerpt for free (PDF)

When You Can’t Go On: Burnout, Reckoning and Renewal $18 print, $8.95 Kindle ebookaudiobook Read the first section for free (PDF)

Global Crisis, National Renewal: A (Revolutionary) Grand Strategy for the United States (Kindle $9.95, print $24, audiobookRead Chapter One for free (PDF).

A Hacker’s Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
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The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake (Novel) $4.95 Kindle, $10.95 print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

Money and Work Unchained $6.95 Kindle, $15 print)
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Self-Reliance in the 21st Century print $18, (Kindle $8.95, audiobook $13.08 (96 pages, 2022) Read the first chapter for free (PDF)

When Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his famous essay Self-Reliance in 1841, the economy was localized and households supplied many of their own essentials. In our hyper-globalized economy, we re dependent on distant sources for our essentials.

Emerson defined self-reliance as being our best selves thinking for ourselves rather than following the conventional path. Self-reliance in the 21st century means reducing our dependency on fragile supply chains and becoming producers as well as consumers.

Self-reliance is often confused with self-sufficiency–the equivalent of Thoreau s a cabin on Walden Pond. But self-reliance in the 21st century isn t about piling up money or a cabin in the woods; it s about humanity’s most successful innovation: cooperating with trustworthy others in productive networks.

The book details the essential mindset of self-reliance and 18 nuts and bolts principles of self-reliance in the 21st century.

Read excerpts for free

Podcast with Richard Bonugli: Self Reliance in the 21st Century (43 min)

When You Can’t Go On: Burnout, Reckoning and Renewal ( $18 print, $8.95 Kindle ebookaudiobook)

When I burned out, what I wanted but could not find was a practical guide by someone who had experienced burnout themselves. None of the material I found spoke to what I was experiencing or to my sense that our economy is now optimized to burn people out.

I decided to write the guide I wanted but could not find. This is my experience of burnout, reckoning and renewal.

This book is my account of what helped me. The intended audience is other burnouts and those who want to better understand the experience of burnout.

Burnout is a life-changing experience in a good way, as absurd as that may sound to those in the depths of burnout. To paraphrase Samuel Beckett: I can’t go on but I must go on. There is a way forward.

Read the first section for free (PDF).         The Introduction

The Epidemic Nobody Talks About: Burnout

Global Crisis, National Renewal: A (Revolutionary) Grand Strategy for the United States ( $22.50 print, $9.95 Kindle ebookaudiobook)

Nations that embrace Degrowth and social cohesion will survive. Those that cling to “waste is growth” economies and destabilizing extremes of inequality will perish.

The threats to the republic are unprecedented, and conventional responses are an accelerant of collapse: the status quo is now the problem rather than the solution.

We have an opportunity to redraw America s Grand Strategy from the ground up. Should we fail to do so, the United States will fail, along with all the other nation-states that are incapable of grasping degrowth and social unity as solutions.

This revolutionary Grand Strategy will be the deciding factor between nation-states that fail and the few (if any) that will not just survive but actually thrive.

Read Chapter One for free (PDF).         Read the Introduction

Podcast discussing the book: A Grand Strategy to Address the Global Crisis (54 min., with Richard Bonugli)

Recent entries:

Hikikomori and Lying Flat: When “Making It” Becomes Hopeless May 7, 2024

Withdrawing from the Rat Race Is Going Global May 6, 2024

I’m Looking for 10 Readers Willing to Pony Up a Few Bucks for the Crazy-Valuable Content Here May 3, 2024

Labor Rising: Will Class Identity Finally Matter Again? May 1, 2024

China and the U.S.: What Matters That’s Overlooked April 29, 2024

The Ghetto-ization of American Life April 25, 2024

Cities’ “Doom Loops” Are Even Worse Than You Imagined April 24, 2024

Is the ‘Housing Shortage’ the Result of Housing-Hoarding by the Wealthy? April 22, 2024

Living on Uneasy Street April 19, 2024

The Spear in AI’s Back April 17, 2024

Financial Forecast 2025-2032: Please Don’t Be Naive April 15, 2024

Sound Money Vs. Fiat Currency: Trade and Credit Are the Wild Cards April 11, 2024

Could US Treasuries Become the Trade of the Decade? April 9, 2024