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The Era of Our Discontent: Power of American Angst - Pacific Standard: The Science of Society

The Era of Our Discontent Power of American Angst Pacific Standard The Science of Society


Disillusioned? Has your initial idealism been ground into cynicism? Dismayed by discovering how things really work?

There’s a term for what you’re suffering: Weltschmerz.

Literally “world pain” in German, Weltschmerz describes the pain idealists feel upon realizing that the world does not live up to their expectations of what it should be. It’s a word only the Germans could come up with— but an affliction that’s hitting America hard.

An entire genre of essays has emerged to chronicle American Weltschmerz. The structure of these pieces typically follows a similar pattern: A hero enters industry X, only to see their hopes dashed against its disappointing realities— before then using their revelation to rally against the prevailing system.

Weltschmerz, though, is not an obscure German phrase for what some may label as “whining.” It has a history of both driving progressive reform and fomenting revolution. How America adapts to this latest upsurge of Weltschmerz will say much about its prospects for adapting its myriad failing institutions to the realities of a changing age.


The rebuilding of the international order in the post-war era—and its expansion after the end of the Cold War—has produced new levels of peace, prosperity, and technological advancement.

We are reportedly now entering a “Second Machine Age”—a “New Digital Era”—that promises unheralded developments in everything from data to robotics to human rights.

Yet, the same old concerns keep creeping in: rising inequality, political instability, a spiritual vacuum, unmet expectations.

The Facebook effect of comparing yourself to your friends’ “happiness” has now gone global. So has the ability to organize—for reform or revolt—when the ideal does not meet the reality.

The success of the reform—still very much in doubt—depends on whether we heed the messages that these Weltschmerz authors are delivering. If not, the convulsions of recent years could intensify even further.

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Weltschmertz is indeed what drives most intellectuals. 

First time I've heard the word.

It seems to be behind every single person who wants to change the world.

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