The Age of Angst

How should governments contend with the rise of social discontent in the wake of rapid globalisation?

Date Posted

15 Jun 2013


Issue 12, 14 Jun 2013

A sweeping groundswell of public discontent, catalysed by the advance of social networking technology, appears to be traversing both developed and developing countries alike. This phenomenon of social angst is evident even in countries that have experienced high growth rates and sustained prosperity in the face of a sluggish global economy. Of this discontent in Germany, Sanders writes:

Shops are busy. Home sales are rocking. Unemployment hasn’t been so low since the eighties. In terms of growth, profits and productivity, the current German economic boom has surpassed even the “wonder years” of the 1950s. These are, by several measures, the most successful people in the world… Yet it is very hard to find anyone here who is happy about this state of affairs… If previous German booms were marked with a national mood of confidence and optimism, this is a prosperity of angst and fear… provoking Germans to turn against their government.1

Such a response in even the better performing nations of the world — including Germany, Israel and Singapore — should give policymakers pause. What are the roots of this social angst? What implications might this “Age of Angst” hold for the social compact between governments and their people, and how should governments respond?

The Origins of Angst

It is not the first time in history that the twin forces of globalisation and technology have generated social angst. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century was a well-documented period with distinct similarities (see story on “Social Angst in the Industrial Revolution”). Both then and now, rapid economic progress and dramatic improvements in social connectedness led to profound social stresses, and consequently widespread socio-political movements and upheaval.

Historically, the convergence of a technological boom with exponential economic growth and integration tends to lead to a flattening and reordering of social hierarchies. In our time, the integration of markets and ease of labour flows that characterise globalisation have had three main palpable effects. First, they expose businesses to cheaper global labour, depressing wages of the broad middle class and resulting in reduced or even negative growth in real incomes for lower- and middle-income groups. Second, knowledge acquisition and management talent are prized and rewarded disproportionately. The result is a widened income gap. Third, large-scale migration driven by cross-border labour demand increases local tensions as societies struggle to adjust to the accelerated interaction and assimilation of disparate cultural groups.

In the past few years, two notable narratives have emerged across manifestations of social angst. The first is depressive success — the angst that arises when the positive effects of globalisation, though substantive, are slow to trickle down or are not spread evenly. The issue is partly one of salience: while the overall benefits of globalisation may outweigh its tradeoffs, the frequency of having to deal with its defects has a disproportionate impact on people’s perceptions. This also explains why empirical improvements in economic outcomes may not result in correspondent improvements in perceptions of wellbeing. A growing sense of social dislocation at the pace of cultural and social change, greater income inequality and the local stresses that result from these global forces then arouse deeper existential concerns of fairness, belonging, identity and values, resulting in a deficit of meaning.

These narratives of social angst, and their underlying discontent, are then amplified by rapid developments in information and communications technology (ironically also a key driver for globalisation). Platforms such as social media accelerate and proliferate the exchange and expression of views, which in turn shape social dynamics with unprecedented pace and scale. The progression from ideation to mobilisation and collective action has become so rapid that traditional government institutions now struggle to keep up.

Social Angst in the Industrial Revolution

Beginning in Britain with the introduction of textile-producing machinery, the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century and throughout most of the 19th century, quickly spread throughout Europe, shifting it from its predominantly agricultural and mercantilist base to an industrial economy. With it came a great burst of innovation, leading to critical developments such as factories, steam power, railroads, the telegraph, electricity, and more.

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Effects of Social Angst

The angst that is generated by these global forces affects society in three ways: it re-shapes national discourse by influencing the framing of popular issues; the polemical nature of discoursecreates new schisms in society; the relationship between government and the people is affected, and this influences the process of policymaking.

First, we begin to see angst influence and frame the local discourse. Although angst is fundamentally a result of global phenomena, it contextualises itself in the language of local concerns. In the past five years, there has been a global rise in anti-immigrant sentiment. Correspondingly, the anti-immigrant narrative feeds on local flash points, arousing strong emotive feelings on issues of national identity, fairness and concerns about integration.2

Second, the polemical nature of the narratives of discontent has an ongoing polarising effect on society. Such angst tends to be directed against a common, oft-caricatured antagonist. If uncontrolled, such social discontent can frame itself as “people against government”, “rich against poor”, “locals against foreigners”, “religious against non-religious”, and so on. We see this repeated in a number of issues, from the local-foreign divide to income inequality (see story on “When Does Angst Become a Movement?”). Increasingly, cultural differences will come to the fore. While such narratives may in fact increase and consolidate national identity (in a reactionary way), local concerns may begin to dominate national discourse, obscuring the global forces that are the real drivers of change.

Finally, social angst in the 21st century has the potential to permanently alter the relationship between government and the people. From “Occupy Wall Street” to the Arab Spring, angst has re-shaped the socio-political landscape, suggesting a shift in society’s expectations of the policymaking process and political participatory norms. Nicholas Kulish observes “from South East Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street… citizens of all ages, particularly the young, are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade unions in favour of a less hierarchical, more participatory system modelled in many ways on the culture of the Web”.3 Yochai Benkler, director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, further argues that “a generation of 20- and 30-year-olds” are rejecting the old social structures of the “industrial economy”, and are searching for a new model of engagement between government and society to deal with the growing stresses that have emerged from globalisation as well as other longstanding local concerns.

When Does Angst Become a Movement?

Every social movement is broadly manifested in a three-part sequence: Ideation, Catalysation and Mobilisation. Ideation refers to the point at which the idea is planted and becomes a compelling narrative, shared and accepted by a substantial audience. Catalysation refers to an event or a series of incidents that ignites the movement. Mobilisation is the final phase where collective action is taken, bringing the narrative to fruition.

The Arab Spring of 2011 exemplifies this sequence. Prior to 2011, the narrative of angst that resulted from income inequality, corruption, high youth unemployment, perceived western injustice and growing political frustrations at the lack of democracy was gaining credence. The immolation of a single street vendor in Tunisia acted as the catalyst. Accelerated through the internet and social media, large crowds were mobilised and before long, a socio-political movement was underway.

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Dealing with the Age of Angst

Globalisation will remain a necessary driver of economic success, but governments will need to mitigate its affective fallout through an understanding of the underlying drivers of social discontent. While globalisation has no doubt brought about significant change and uncertainty to countries, its broad benefits should not come to be overshadowed by its costs (as embodied in the narrative of depressive success and deficit of meaning).

Three broad strategies might be pursued. First, governments need to detect and understand public perception early in order to influence the development of emerging social narratives in good time. This requires governments to integrate information-sharing efforts and to develop more effective sense-making capabilities. These should include broad analytical capabilities to determine, for example, whether particular public issues are borne out by facts on the ground or in fact represent gaps between perception and reality. Second, governments need the creative and emotional acumen to generate smart options in order to communicate, engage and influence the tenor and mood of discussions. For example, in Finland, the maternity pack or “baby box”, a starter kit of toys, clothes and sheets given to every newborn child, has become a powerful symbol of a government that cares for its people. It serves as a reminder that narrative shaping actions do not always need to be expensive grand gestures. Third, good sense-making and communication should engender a collaborative process of policymaking that, if harnessed well, can help shore up social resilience.

Admittedly, in the long run, a more responsive and relational government is only half of the solution. A culture of collaboration, where multiple domains harnessed across society support and enhance the delivery of outcomes, is the essential ingredient to the recipe. In such a scenario, government will continue to play a leading role, except that it is now able to draw from a greater range of options and develop better pathways for policy implementation. Yet therein lies the challenge, for societies would need to undergo a paradigm shift where they eventually see themselves as partners in the solution, rather than just depending on governments to resolve all of society’s ills.

History has shown us that difficult challenges have always unearthed opportunities for nations to unite around common goals and ideals. In the face of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863 offered a language that enunciated American beliefs and goals, and aided a country torn by internal strife to move beyond its existential challenges. When facing the tensions that arise from global change, governments must be able to enunciate a unifying goal or ideal that transcends current social difficulties.

Nevertheless, the factors that allow a society to deal with acute occurrences are quite different from those that allow it to respond to chronic forces. For example, Japanese society dealt remarkably well with the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. However, against longer-term concerns like globalisation and ageing, Japan has proved itself less adaptable as its society continues to struggle to find a consensus to deal with these emerging issues. As governments learn to navigate the age of angst, they will have to expand their communication and engagement strategies, moving beyond conventional speeches and press releases to embrace affective approaches,4 in order to more effectively shepherd social narratives towards the greater collective good.


Charles Ng is Assistant Director in the Legal Industry Division, Ministry of Law. Prior to this, he was Assistant Director in the National Security Coordination Secretariat. The views expressed in this article are his own.


  1. Doug Sanders, “Germany’s Season of Angst: How a Prosperous Nation is Turning on Itself”, Globe and Mail, June 25, 2011.
  2. Such as the Ferrari incident in Singapore. See http://www.asiaone.com/News/Latest+News/Singapore/Story/A1Story20120512-345585.html
  3. “Walking Out of the System”. International Herald Tribune, September 29, 2011.
  4. New York in the 1970s was struggling with the highest crime rates in the history of the city. This not only affected its public image, but also had aggravating effects on public opinion. Through a campaign to generate tourism, celebrated American graphic designer Milton Glaser devised the “I Love New York” symbol, which has endured far longer than anticipated. In an unintended fashion, this powerful symbol was heavily utilised by New Yorkers after 9/11 as a sign of solidarity collective strength.