September 14, 2020

Remembering 9/11 with a shudder and how fear became entrenched in the mindset of society ever since,  gives us the chills as a friend recollects sitting at home with a newborn, watching CNN in horror when the second plane dove into the tower, worrying for the ex-husband in London and getting a call from her boss who asked matter-of-factly, what sort of positions she had which would be hit the next day. She mumbled something about John Hancock or Pacific Life bonds and the mental scar remains.

Another friend is lapsing into mild depression, rueing that the WFH dream is coming to an end and it does not matter what the Ministry of Manpower thinks because banks want staff back just like JPM and Wall Street (local and regional banks more, because the last count was 75-90 per cent front office staff back compared to 30 per cent for foreign banks locally—many Covid-19 cluster-bombs in the making) and we polished off three bottles of sake on that prospect.

For those living in close-quarter high-rises, it has been the stress from a daily proliferation of drama in those blocks from the daily and nightly family quarrels of neighbours, a variety of pitches echoing down the blocks as a friend was describing, followed by suicide attempts by husbands or wives driven to the edge with the occasion SCDF intervention. Again, we polished off three bottles of champagnes in commiseration.

For the others, it was the feeling of incredible loneliness, isolation and confinement that was unbearable during the lockdown which we vaguely empathise with, along with some high-quality OEM baijiu, given we managed to get by without a single Zoom call to friends or family.

The health crisis has disrupted and upended everything about feeling sane, as we tread economic upheaval with soaring stock markets making a mockery of the situation and the widening wealth gap (that we wrote about previously) with people losing their livelihoods when Porsches are flying off the racks. It takes a toll on our mental well-being.

It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.”— Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Mental states have never been more fragile even for us, unaffected by most of what is happening except for the financial markets that threaten to drive us to despair, just by observing the level of distress in society. From the individual level (health, personal finances, career prospects) to the multiple businesses shuttering, the political partisanship and jingoism, the rise of discrimination, environmental destruction, natural disasters, heightened political tensions, the demise of democracy and more, amidst a backdrop of the rapidly widening wealth gap that has also led to an intellectual gap.

So what? We are in the good part of the K-Recession because professional workers are largely fine and some are even thriving while the “plebs and chavs” (aka the masses or the “Common People” by Pulp) are possibly having a worse or slightly worse time. “K” exemplifies the growing divide between the better-off and the worse-off from this crisis and it has extended even to the corporations and countries where poorer nations are suffering in ways we would prefer not to read about, as we reap the spoils of our Tesla and Apple profits and worry about getting ourselves a nice sporty car for that bucket list.

Yet it is impossible to ignore that stress levels are shooting through the roof and alienation and anger are festering in society. It is not surprising given that nihilism is back in fashion particularly amongst the millennials and zoomers (Gen Z 1997-2012) where there is not much to behold for the future in a world gone crazy, and there is not much hope if you are not rich and powerful or have rich and powerful parents.

The obvious non-exhaustive results?

The meteoric rise in young adult suicide rates all over the world from Singapore to the United States as the youth bear the brunt of the economic fallout.

Societies becoming deeply polarised with sustained social unrest around the world as gun sales rocket in America in a potential state of “incipient insurgency”.

Racism and nationalism sprouting as Singaporeans take to a witch hunt for expatriate workers taking up jobs and Black Americans anxiety at all-time highs with their mental health at stake.

A loneliness epidemic erupting especially amongst the disengaged youth who just do not feel economically secure as large parts of the world feel increasing bleak about the economy.

Collapsing birth rates becoming commonplace as some Chinese cities forecast a 27 per cent drop in expected births, Americans are having fewer babies than ever and Singapore already has one of the lowest birth rates in the world which is unlikely to improve.

Things are about to get worse from here.

Singapore is set to lose thousands more jobs in the next six months as governments around the world realise they cannot keep jobs on life support forever. Stress levels will be higher than ever going ahead and bad things happen to people’s brains and bodies when they are stressed about money and sustained “poverty imposes a large cognitive burden” on folks, leading to poorer decision making even as studies point to a predilection for increased unethical behaviour in the higher social class. Case in point: Professor Donald Low cited in his reflection on the inequality of the acquitted domestic worker case that has gripped Singaporeans’ attention in the past fortnight.

We are not able to provide a miracle solution to the mental health crisis that is upon the world, despite the WEF offering suggestions for governments to cope.

Nonetheless having a more equitable society to bring some hope back into lives would be a good start because it is plain depressing to see Elon Musk and Bezos with gazillions when millions ponder on suicide as evictions mount and millions more people go hungry in America.

Perhaps capitalism has been rewarding the wrong type of capital all along—financial/economic and intellectual capital, and discouraging the “greed is good” crowd from realising that there are two other forms of capital that have been neglected: social capital and human capital.

Chadwick Boseman, the late star of Black Panther, had said this of Denzel Washington who was his secret benefactor in drama academy, picking up the tab of his school fees: “An offering from a sage and a king is more than silver and gold.  It is a seed of hope. A bud of faith.  There is no Black Panther without Denzel Washington. And not just because of me, but my cast—that whole generation—stands on your shoulders.”

An interesting blog post from Dollars and Data’s Nick Maggiulli, “Why Poor People Stay Poor,” alluded that his career would have never existed, but for the social capital provided by his professor in university who transformed his life with an internship that taught him his first technical skills.

What is social capital then? Investopedia defines it as “a positive product of human interaction. The positive outcome may be tangible or intangible and may include useful information, innovative ideas, and future opportunities. It can be used to describe the contribution to an organization’s success that can be attributed to personal relationships and networks, both within and outside an organization. It can also be used to describe the personal relationships within a company that help build trust and respect among employees, leading to enhanced company performance.”

Extrapolating the concept to our lives, it would be a worthy investment if we want to do our part to fight this mental health crisis and all the stress around us, and not be blind to the fact that it would come to a bad ending for ourselves and our portfolios if it continues to perpetuate into a downward spiral. We are seeing signs of everywhere in the world and that it is simply not a job for the government.

Making a small difference, giving hope and changing someone’s life in big and small ways to reduce societal stress could be the greatest generational portfolio hedge we are forgetting to do.